It’s that month again: December. The month of Cookies and Chaos. The month where you swear this will be the year you don’t eat too many cookies and that you will rein in the geyser of presents that spills forth from the Christmas tree. Each year I promise myself these things, and each year I fail. We leave a party and I think, “Wait, did I just eat a dozen cookies?” and on Christmas morning I look at the aftermath and sigh. Next year, I think, next year will be different. But it probably won’t be.
Now that we have accepted the situation, let’s talk about something that I’ve always pondered but never investigated: how bad is it, really, to lick the batter spoon? I’m pretty sure I always licked the spoon growing up. And the beaters and … maybe even wiped batter directly out of the bowl with my fingers and licked them clean. I never got sick, and I never really thought anything of it. But now that I have mom goggles I think about things differently (you know, the ones that make everything in the entire world look dangerous when your kid is present? Even sidewalks and ordinary chairs look dangerous because you know at any moment your child might spastically fall face first into something without warning. No cause, just effect.) Every single time we make cookies or cake my kids beg to lick the spoon because I’m pretty sure my mom lets them do it at her house. And I always want to let them, but my husband gives me the hairy eyeball and so I say, “No, you can’t. It has raw egg in it, and you could get salmonella.” But I really want to let them, because as I turn around to put the bowl in the sink, I make sure to lick the spoon without anyone seeing (husband included).
I decided it was time to look into that age old adage and see how risky it really is to eat raw cookie dough. The risk comes from the bacterium Salmonella Enteritidis that can be present in raw eggs. Laying hens who are infected with salmonella don’t display any symptoms, so it’s very difficult to know if the bacteria are present in eggs until people start getting sick (vomiting, diarrhea). Salmonella can be present both on the inside of the egg (if the hen’s ovaries are infected and she passes the bacteria into the egg) and on the outside of the egg (contamination through contact with infected material either from the henhouse or from handling.) Contamination on the outside of the egg used to be a common problem before the 1970s when strict procedures for inspecting and sanitizing the outsides of eggs made it extremely rare. So the real risk today comes from inside the egg, although only a small number of hens might be infected and even then, infected hens can lay many normal eggs while only occasionally laying contaminated eggs.
The reality is, though, the risk is exceptionally low these days. Back in the 80s, 90s and again in 2010 there were outbreaks of salmonella-related illnesses that were traced back to eating raw eggs. As a result, in 2010 the FDA began requiring that egg producers implement preventative measures to reduce the incidence of Salmonella Enteritidis. They estimate these measures will reduce the number of Salmonella Enteritidis infections from eggs by nearly 60 percent. I
ndeed, the incidence of egg-related illness has been reduced since the 1990s when most of us where being told not to lick the spoon. In fact, scientists estimate that only one in 20,000 eggs might contain the bacteria, giving you a 0.005 percent chance that your egg is contaminated. That means that an average consumer will encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years. Considering that most of the eggs I eat are cooked (which kills the bacteria), the chances are even lower that the one contaminated egg I will encounter in my lifetime turns out to be the raw egg in my cookie dough batter.
Furthermore, even if you do encounter that one egg, you’re probably not going to get sick from it for a few reasons. First, proper refrigeration (at or below 45 degrees F) prevents the bacteria from growing to dangerous levels. Most outbreaks have come from restaurant settings where eggs are pooled together allowing one contaminated egg to infect the entire batch and then the batch of eggs is kept at unsafe temperatures so the bacteria can grow. If you’ve kept your eggs in the fridge and kept the number of bacteria low, you might not even encounter the infected part of the raw egg (maybe that part gets left behind in the shell, washed down the drain, or cooked thoroughly in the oven.) If, however, that infected raw portion does end up in your mouth, if you’re got a robust and healthy intestinal tract, your own body will do a pretty good job of preventing you from getting sick.
Now, it would be irresponsible of me to recommend that you eat raw eggs. And, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not encouraging anyone to rush into the kitchen and start cracking raw eggs into your green smoothie (yuck). The CDC states that approximately 42,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States each year. Of course that includes all types of salmonella, of which Salmonella Entereditis is only one, albeit the most common one. Those statistics also include illness from sources other than eggs (pork, raw milk, beef, sprouts, or even nuts like in this recall just last summer), but eggs are the most common source of Salmonella Entereditis. Those infected with the bacteria usually experience stomach flu-like symptoms that are resolved in less than a week without treatment. In rare cases the symptoms can be extreme and cause hospitalization or even death. Additionally, if you’re immune-compromised, you’re more likely to get sick from consuming just a small amount of the bacteria. The most sure-fire way to avoid illness from eggs is to always properly refrigerate eggs, cook them thoroughly, and consume them promptly.
While I’m on the subject of proper cooking of eggs, think about this: how many eggs have you eaten where the yolk was a little bit runny? What about true Caesar dressing that calls for raw eggs? What about traditional egg nog, aioli, mayonnaise? (Don’t freak out, commercial varieties use pasteurized eggs. The process kills the bacteria and the USDA considers pasteurized eggs to be safe for use without cooking – it’s also what’s used in commercially available refrigerated cookie dough. You can also buy pasteurized eggs and do the same if you want to have a bunch of teenage girls over and throw a big raw-cookie-dough-eating party.) You’re still taking a risk every time you eat soft cooked eggs. What’s the difference between that and taking a few licks of the batter spoon?
Now, I realize that in a true risk-benefit analysis, there would have to be an actual benefit to eating raw cookie dough, and there isn’t. (Other than the fact that I like it.) If I were properly analyzing this, I would have to say that any small risk outweighs the benefit when there isn’t a benefit. Therefore you shouldn’t eat raw cookie dough. But, like I said, I like it. And I’m not really concerned about the risk because I think it’s a very small risk.
So, in conclusion, and in my opinion – let them eat (raw) cake! Not a lot, of course, but this December when I make cookies with my kids, I’m not going to feel guilty about letting them lick the spoon.