If you know anything about silica gel, the mystery substance in those small white packets tossed into shoe boxes and beef jerky bags, eating it is probably a bad idea. Whoever does the packaging makes a big fuss of that by printing “Do Not Eat” warnings all over the place in large, ominous letters.
But what if I were to disobey that advice and eat one, anyway? Would I cease to exist? Would my organs implode? Would I reach a new level of consciousness and unearth a highly confidential government secret?
Sadly, the reality is a lot less interesting.
Cyrus Rangan, assistant medical director of the California Poison Control System (CPCS), tells me that silica is the main component of, well, sand. In gel form, it has a multitude of small pores that can adsorb 40 percent of its weight in moisture and take the humidity in a closed container way, way down. This makes silica gel a great tool for limiting the growth of mold, reducing spoilage and preventing damage caused by excess moisture or condensation, which is why it can be found in so many products.
But contrary to the excessive warnings, silica gel is essentially harmless. Rangan compares ingesting a packet to eating a teaspoon of sand at the park. “Ingestion of any foreign substance, of course, can give you some nausea or stomach upset,” he says, but usually nothing more.
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So why do they make such a big deal about not eating it on the packaging, then?
Mostly because silica gel poses a choking hazard to children who swallow the whole package. Rangan also says the FDA and CPSC recognize that it looks a lot like a sugar packet, so they felt obligated to at least put a warning label on it, especially when it comes with food.
None of this means you or anyone else should eat silica gel packets, though. If consumed in large enough quantities, they can cause intestinal obstruction, and in rare cases, silica gel can be coated in cobalt chloride, a toxic compound that, as Rangan pointed out, may cause nausea and vomiting.
But if you accidentally send one down with a handful of beef jerky, you should be just fine.