For the past few years, typically around the winter holidays, the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention have issued the same upsetting, yet easily ignored, warning: DO NOT EAT COOKIE DOUGH. This year’s message came with all the expected parts: statistics about salmonella bacteria and E. coli, and the stern implication that if you give into the temptation to eat a smidge of raw chocolate-chip dough, you’re probably going to have some serious digestive distress.
Foodborne illnesses are no joking matter, and I wouldn’t have dared to eat a big head of romaine lettuce a few weeks back, during its nationwide E. coli outbreak. But for some reason, the fearmongering around eating raw cookie dough has always seemed a little excessive, which perhaps has something to do with the fact that I — and pretty much everyone I know — have eaten raw dough no fewer than 20 times in my life, and never has it made me sick. So … is eating raw cookie dough really that bad?
According to Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a public-health expert and someone who boldly proclaimed in an article on the Conversation that his family “regularly” eats cookie dough, there is definitely a risk, “especially when that cookie dough is prepared as it is typically at home.” In your typical cookie recipe, there are two main ingredients that could make you ill: eggs, which can carry salmonella, and raw flour, surprisingly, which can become contaminated with E. coli germs. (In 2016, an outbreak of E. coli infections connected to General Mills flour made 63 people sick.) While people typically associate foodborne illnesses with animal products — because of, well, feces — germs can contaminate grains while they’re still in the field. And, because flour is typically raw, meaning that it isn’t heat-treated to kill off germs, there’s a possibility it could be contaminated. This, however, is rare.
More importantly, there are easy ways to minimize that risk. Zikmund-Fisher, who is an associate professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan, told the Cut that in his cookie dough, his family only uses eggs that are pasteurized, which means they’ve been exposed to heat in order to destroy any bacteria, and flour that has not been recalled. (Yes, it’s really as simple as that). And, while there is still a chance he could get sick, Zikmund-Fisher stresses that humans make the choice to eat risky foods all the time: sushi, rare steak and hamburger, and even romaine lettuce.
“I don’t see why cookie dough is any different,” Zikmund-Fisher told the Cut. “It is interesting to note that with healthy foods that have risks, we seem to tolerate them. But when we get into cookie dough, which we can all admit is not the most healthy food, it seems as though the health officials feel more justification in saying, ‘No, you shouldn’t eat that.’”
Now, neither Zikmund-Fisher nor I are encouraging anyone to gorge themselves on raw cookie dough, sans souci, and will not assume any responsibility if anyone reading this blog gets sick from eating the stuff. And, for people who don’t want there to be really any chance of getting seriously ill from dough, there are a number of “safe” premade brands you can buy at the grocery, like Do.
But for those who want to continue to eat globs of uncooked dough straight out of the mixing bowl at home, you should be allowed to make your own decisions, but consider taking a number of precautionary steps. Think of this lesson like comprehensive sex education, but for cookies: If you’re definitely going to continue doing the Bad Thing (eating raw cookie dough), just be Safe (use pasteurized eggs and flour that hasn’t been recalled).