I’m impatient when it comes to food. I’ll eat a partially still-frozen pizza rather than wait for it to cook all the way. I’m fine with omitting ingredients called for by a recipe. And, sure, I’ve spotted hairs in takeaway food and—thinking ‘screw it, what’s the harm?’—just eaten around them. After all, that can’t be worse than eating food that’s fallen on the floor, which I also, in my infinite grossness, have been known to do. It turns out, my lazy food habits are generally benign when it comes to hair.
Hair fibers are about 98 percent protein—largely keratin, a protective protein that also lines internal organs. “Ingesting a hair or two...will likely not be problematic and will just pass right through you—we can't digest it,” says Adam Friedman, a dermatology professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
The FDA’s Food Defect Action Levels state that the presence of a few hairs in foods—fewer than 11 rodent hairs per 50 grams of cinnamon, for instance—is one of the “natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans.” Even beyond the (strangely specific) threshold of 11 rat hairs in a cinnamon jar, the significance is aesthetic, not health-related. Hair in food is more of a food quality than a food safety issue.
The FDA is less clear on physical risks, but “hair can be a physical or biological hazard,” says Rogeria Almeida, a food science professor at Brazil’s Federal University of Bahia. Despite the possibility of encountering dyes, sprays, and gels applied to hair, it’s not considered a chemical hazard in food—only a physical or biological one.
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In terms of physical risks, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency classes hair as an “extraneous material,” like wood chips or insects. The physical hazard comes from things like choking or damage to the mouth. Friedman says that, theoretically, “a hair in the mouth could puncture the mucosa [mucous membrane], causing inflammation and pain,” but says it would be uncommon.
While rare, excessive hair consumption does have some health risks. Trichotillomania, or hair-pulling disorder, occasionally is associated with swallowing of the hair, leading to hairballs in the stomach. A subset of people with tricophagia, or the compulsive eating of pulled-out hair, develop Rapunzel syndrome: a condition where the tail of a hairball reaches past the stomach into the small intestine. This can cause intestinal bleeding, bowel obstruction, and other harmful effects. But Rapunzel syndrome is extremely infrequent, and associated with a psychological disorder. Vanishingly few of us will develop harmful hairballs in our internal organs.
What about the biological hazard? Theoretically, hairs could carry staph; Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium that affects hair follicles and leads to hair loss, but you don't know if a hair found in food has pathogens for sure, Almeida says. It’s improbable that a few hairs would harbor enough harmful microorganisms to affect the gastrointestinal system. “In most cases, it is unlikely that a single hair can contain enough—and the 'right; kind—of bacteria to cause food poisoning,” says Markus Lipp, a senior food safety officer with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. This is especially true if the hair has fallen into food that’s been subjected to a high-temperature process, like boiling or frying. And even if a hair falls into a raw menu item, Lipp explains, “If food is stored correctly, it is unlikely that the microbes present can grow significantly...during the lifetime of the food.”
And while non-baldies lose 50 to 100 hairs per day, it would be surprising for any more than a few of these to make it into food. Chef hats and hair nets—recommended under certain guidelines like the FDA Food Code and required by some restaurants—generally do a serviceable job of keeping hair out of the dishes that get served. But there generally aren’t industry-wide requirements for hair to be restrained in kitchens.
In New York City, for instance, guidelines for hair are poorly enforced and sometimes nonsensical, says Jenny Dorsey, a chef and food consultant who has worked in restaurants in New York and San Francisco, including two Michelin two-star restaurants. Dorsey explains that, in her experience, the Department of Health might require a hairnet or a beard net, or be ok with nothing more than a baseball cap.
And as some have argued, hats and nets could be more about image than any genuine health precautions. Disgust with seeing hair in food gives restaurants a bad rap, after all. Still, the presence of stray hairs could suggest a lack of attention to food hygiene more generally. “Hair can be an indicator of lack of sanitation at the facility where the food was prepared,” says Archie Magoulas, a food safety specialist at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
For Magoulas, the bottom line is to trust your gut if you want to avoid problems with it. “If you sense there’s a problem with any food product," he says, "don’t consume it.”
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