Tag Archives: particulate matter and dust in snow

Is Snow Gluten-Free?

If all the snowflakes were candy bars and milk shakes,
I hope they’d be gluten-free!

It’s snowing here in New York, and the city is beautiful when it snows. At least, when it starts to snow. Once it begins to accumulate and all those pedestrians and bicyclists and drivers go tramping and swishing and churning through it, it turns to gray mush pretty fast. I’m sure the superintendents responsible for shoveling out the apartment steps and sidewalks aren’t huge fans, either.

Gorgeous! Photo © emilydickinsonridesabmx (which is a great username) | Flickr

Photo © emilydickinsonridesabmx (which is a great username) | Flickr

Still, right now, while the flakes are falling white and pristine, melting on impact with my face and sticking to what’s left of my hair (just kidding, it’s doing okay), it’s beautiful. And, as an eternal kid and a goofball, at times like this I can’t help but stick out my tongue for a taste.

Today, as I was doing so, I got to thinking. People ask if envelopes, and charcoal, and bodily fluids, and lemon and lime wedges are gluten-free (yes, yes, yes, and I don’t know, but I hope so, because sometimes I accept one because you can’t drink a gin and tonic or a gimlet without a squeeze of lime, and I’ve not yet started bringing my own wedges to the bar).

But, is snow gluten-free?

We all know that those downy flakes aren’t necessarily so pristine as we might hope. Certainly, once snow has hit the ground here in the city, yellow or not, I’d be wary about scooping up a handful to eat. It’s bound to be full of grime and who-knows-what-else. Gluten? Well, I’ve queasily side-stepped enough discarded chicken wings, half-eaten brownies, and whole loaves of white bread being torn to bits by pigeons to be at least a little worried. Whether or not the sidewalk snow would test under 20 ppm gluten, it’s 1 million ppm disgusting.

But what about the falling snow? Snow is primarily composed of what is, essentially, distilled water (evaporated by heat, and thereby naturally purified). As most of us know, distilled liquids do not contain gluten, unless it has been added in after distillation. So evaporated water, even if it came from a river by a flour mill, is gluten-free. (All those water bottles marked gluten-free are, well, obviously gluten-free, unless they’ve had natural flavorings added to them [which is as gross as New York street snow].)

Still, snow, even fresh from the atmosphere, can contain lots of icky stuff, such as the bacteria Pseudomonas syringae (nasty, but ubiquitous enough to be considered harmless), mercury, acid (it’s not just for rain), and other pollutants, including particulate matter (dust). And in fact, snow has to contain particulate matter: according to the UCSB Science Line, “tiny dust particles are . . . the ‘seeds’ on which the water starts to crystallize (freeze).”

At that, I started to wonder. Let’s consider that dirty polluting flour mill again. Couldn’t the dust around which my snowflakes formed their pretty selves have been flour dust, once? Eek!

But don’t freak out yet. Though I’ve not conducted any studies, I’m pretty sure we’re safe. Though flour dust is found in high concentrations in factories themselves, I’ve not found any stats on flour pollution in the air in general. And even if one or two of the dust particles in the few snowflakes you catch on your tongue came from a Wonder Bread facility, there wouldn’t be a high enough concentration of gluten there to make you sick. Other stuff? Yeah, maybe.

Most scientists agree that, although for a variety of reasons eating snow in large quantities isn’t the greatest of ideas, a little bit (unlike gluten) won’t harm a kid—or you. So if you’d just like to stand outside with your mouth open wide and sing “Ah! Ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah” for a little while, I say go for it. You’re only really at risk for looking like a crazy person . . . and here in New York, you’ll fit right in.

If only we all looked so cute eating snow. Photo © satakieli | Flickr

If only we all looked so cute eating snow.
Photo © satakieli | Flickr

Do you eat snow (or allow your kids to)? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever considered the gluten content of?

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