Why Are We So Grossed Out by Hair in Food? – InfowayTechnologies

In Too Afraid to Ask, we’re answering food-related questions that may or may not give you goosebumps. Today: I found a hair in my food—now what?

There’s nothing that’ll turn me off a nice bowl of cacio e pepe faster than discovering a human hair lurking in the pasta. I’ll admit that, in most cases, the hair in question is one of my own—long and blonde, pretending to be spaghetti. Every once in a while, though, I find a strand in a meal that is decidedly not mine, and it sends me into a spiral.

I say that as a pretty disgusting person. I chew my nails. I still tell myself the five-second rule is real. And I have double-dipped a chip or two at parties (safe space, yeah?). But even I draw the line at human hair; there’s something so…cannibalistic…about finding it in my food. Or worse: my mouth. Humans eating humans is a bit of a literary kink in novels and on screens right now, but here in the real world, I certainly do not have a taste for my own kind.

So, let’s untangle the history, culture, and science of finding human hair in food.

What is hair?

Though it grows from follicles found on our scalps, “hair is not living,” says Amy K. Bieber, MD, a dermatologist at NYU Langone. (That’s why haircuts don’t hurt.) It’s primarily composed of a type of protein called keratin, the same tough and insoluble material that makes up our skin and nails.

Is eating hair dangerous?

Swallowing a stray hair or two is unlikely to cause any harm. Our digestive system can’t process keratin, so “the hair itself just goes through your digestive system and comes out in your poop,” says Bieber.

Plus, we already kind of eat hair. One of the main amino acids found in keratin, L-cysteine, is often used as a dough conditioner (enhancing the elasticity of bread and baked goods) and a preservative in food processing. It’s most commonly derived from purified poultry feathers and certain types of animal hair.

Eating a lot of hair, though, is dicey. It can potentially lead to gastrointestinal discomfort—and even a trichobezoar, which is a hairball that gets lodged in the stomach or intestines, sometimes causing blockages and digestive issues. Trichobezoars are rare, and more commonly associated with a compulsive hair-eating disorder known as trichophagia.

Can germs hitchhike on human hair?

Individual hairs don’t harbor a significant amount of harmful pathogens. The hair shaft can potentially pick up bacteria, fungi, yeast, or other microbes from the environment or our scalps—such as Staphylococcus aureus, which affects hair follicles. But it’s unlikely that a few hairs would harbor enough dangerous microorganisms to cause significant health issues, says Bieber.

There are certain types of hair infections, such as white piedra, that can grow on the hair shaft. “But they’re very uncommon,” says Bieber, “and even if they’re ingested, it’s probably fine.” Some good context: Any of the organisms found on someone else’s hair, you’ve probably already eaten via your own hair, skin, and nails.

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