As a young lawyer in Australia, Andrew Taylor couldn’t help but hurry through lunch, quickly and distractedly eating between meetings. Until that is, he bit down on the wrong tortilla chip, one that “severely scratched” his esophagus. “I was in quite a lot of pain for some time, but was told by my doctor and dentist there was little they could do,” he explains, adding that they basically informed him that he would have to wait until his throat healed on its own.
They did make sure, though, that he knew how lucky he was. “I was told of a situation where someone actually tore their throat,” Taylor explains, “and it was quite touch-and-go there for a while.”
The case Taylor is referring to is widely known in dental circles. The gist of it: On May 10, 1990, a gastroenterologist in San Diego named George Longstreth wrote into the New England Journal of Medicine, describing how a “poorly chewed tortilla chip can produce serious injury.” His patient, 63-year-old Irene Harnisch, had swallowed a tortilla chip that ripped a five-inch gash in her esophagus. After throwing up blood and experiencing severe chest pains, she was rushed to the hospital, where she was kept for six days (she was unable to eat solid food for another two weeks).
“It was a very serious incident,” Longstreth told United Press International at the time. “She lost four pints of blood. It’s possible she could have died.”
His incident report would prove pivotal years later, when Carl and Diane Grady of Pennsylvania allegedly ate “five or six Doritos-brand tortilla chips” that resulted in an esophageal tear and further injury. The couple opted to sue Frito-Lay, alleging their “Doritos are unsafe and defective because they fracture into hard, sharp fragments that are capable of lacerating the esophagus when eaten.”
The Gradys enlisted the expert opinion of Charles Beroes, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, who argued that “Doritos Tortillas Natural Cheese Flavored corn chips have several hidden-hazardous physical-strength and physical-shape properties that make them unreasonably dangerous.” Beroes even ran some DIY experiments in which he held the chips in his own mouth for 15- to 60-second intervals, concluding, “the tips of the triangular chips did not soften sufficiently to prevent laceration of the esophagus after 60 seconds of exposure of saliva.”
Frito-Lay successfully argued that Beroes’ testimony “represented inadmissible ‘junk science,’” but Harnisch’s experience swayed the court enough that it ultimately found Frito-Lay “29 percent responsible” for Grady’s injuries.
In short, the “tasty tortilla chip isn’t a very welcoming food for oral health,” says Sonal Bhoot, a dentist in Kansas. And while esophageal tears that require an ER visit (a la Grady and Harnisch) are rare, Bhoot says dentists commonly see chip-inspired soft tissue injuries (e.g., abrasions to the gums, tongue and roof of the mouth).
There are also numerous reviews on Amazon warning people about tooth-breaking chips:
A broken tooth will probably require a dentist, but Bhoot explains that “our oral cavity, particularly the tongue, has the potential to heal rapidly because of its rich blood supply, so mild abrasions can heal on their own.” Thus, if a chip stabs a mild hole in your gums, just “give it a week’s time for self-healing, and avoid eating spicy foods, carbonated beverages and tobacco in order to allow the wound to heal faster.”
In the case that they don’t heal, however, tortilla chip stab wounds could grow into a much bigger problem. “Believe it or not, sexologists have a dog in the Tortilla Chip Hazards Race,” says Carol Queen, sexologist at Good Vibrations. “Micro-cuts or worse on gums and buccal tissue from chips heighten the risk that a person will contract HIV from unprotected oral play.”
Queen tells me that her warnings around chip eating and oral sex aren’t necessarily about abstaining from eating chips, but more that people should “take safer oral sex seriously, which includes waiting a few hours after eating chips, flossing or brushing teeth — anything that damages the oral mucousa — before engaging in oral sex.”
“It’s significant to let the injury heal,” Bhoot adds. “The oral cavity is full of microorganisms, so these injuries act as a root for microbial invasion and spread infection from the mouth to the bloodstream.”
What preventative measures, though, can we simple chip-eaters undertake so as not to become another victim of razor-tipped tortilla chip trauma?
Properly chewing your food is a good start. “Always eat slowly, give time for chewing, and take in minimal quantities at a time, since well-chewed food mitigates damage to the oral mucosa,” Bhoot tells me. Further, she warns that alcohol can worsen “the trauma created by the tortilla chips,” since careful chewing isn’t exactly top of mind as you drunkenly shovel nachos covered in microwaved shredded cheese into your mouth at 4 a.m.
In that case, maybe the ruling in Grady v. Frito-Lay Inc. was correct. The humble tortilla chip can only assume roughly a third of the blame for the devastation it leaves in its wake. The other two-thirds falls upon the vile, contemptuous margarita.