Cookie-dough Eaters Tempted By The Flavor - And The Raw Thrill

February 03, 2010|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,

'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have devoured raw cookie dough. At least that's how Vanessa Simmons sees it.

"My friends and I used to buy a role of slice-and-bake and just eat spoonfuls of it during a breakup or crisis," said Simmons, a 23-year-old Johns Hopkins graduate who lives in Mount Vernon.

Raw cookie dough may heal a broken heart, but it's not so hot for the rest of you.

Last month, E. coli turned up in refrigerated Toll House cookie dough at Nestle's Danville, Va., plant. The dough never left the factory, so there was no recall. But there was a huge recall in June after at least 70 people in 31 states got sick after eating raw Nestle dough. The outbreak prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to warn consumers, again - there is already a warning on the package - not to eat raw cookie dough.

And still, the dough-eating continues, even among those who have their food safety antennae up.

Johanna Bachman is a Hampden mother of three who buys local and organic, in part because she worries about the safety of industrial foods. She limits the family's sugar intake, but when she makes homemade cookies as a treat, she samples plenty of dough. She figures it's safe because she uses eggs from a local farm.

"They were pastured chickens, not just your typical industrial smash-'em-together kind of chickens," she said.

There are dough doubters out there who obediently refrain from licking the bowl. They associate the risk with raw eggs. But Nestle uses pasteurized eggs in its cookie dough. The company believes the source of the E. coli 0157:H7 may have been the uncooked flour, though the cause has not been determined for certain. Nestle is moving to a heat-treated flour to improve safety

"Flour is a raw agricultural product," said Edie Burge, a spokeswoman for Nestle. "As such, raw agricultural commodities can carry some risk."

That may come as a surprise to dough-fearing moms and dads who make the kids scrub up, as if for surgery, after cracking an egg but don't blink if they want a taste of uncooked pizza dough. And for good reason: There are no safe-handling warnings printed on bags of flour like the ones on meat and eggs and cookie dough.

"We really don't know what the true risk [of raw flour] is," said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

An industry group is studying the prevalence of salmonella bacteria in flour, he said. Previous studies have found salmonella in 0.34 percent to 1.3 percent of all flour, Doyle said. By comparison, it's found in 5 percent to 20 percent of raw poultry.

The incidence of E. coli in flour would be even lower, Doyle said. The deadly bacteria, which have turned up in 0.17 percent of ground beef, might be present in 0.01 percent of flour, he estimated.

Even with the specter of contaminated flour thrown into the mix, lots of people fail to fear their cookie dough. That can be explained by ignorance of the risks - or a canny calculation of them. Death by cookie dough appears to be less likely than by lightning strike. About 60 Americans die every year after being hit by lightning; no one died from last year's commercial cookie dough outbreak. Even so, 35 of those sickened by the Nestle dough in June were hospitalized, 10 with severe complications. There is a risk. Why take it?

Kitchen quality control, human evolution and a raging lust for a buttery, sugary forbidden fruit are all in the mix.

Beth Chaney eats raw dough at least once a week and has lived to blog about it.

"I definitely do a lot of baking and a lot of raw batter eating," said Chaney, who lives near Patterson Park and writes the food blog "As a baker, I feel like I need to sample that dough before it goes in the oven. I can often tell if something is off from the raw dough - and I can fix it before it goes in the oven, but not after."

Evolution also may explain why so many people have failed to kick the bowl-licking habit. Yummy doughs are not the sort of threat humans are wired to fear, said James McGee, an admitted dough-eater and retired director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Health System.

"The chance of getting eaten by a shark is, like, one in a gazillion, but from the evolutionary standpoint, the brain is particularly responsive to threats by predators," he said. "... Cookie dough sounds just sort of soft and cuddly, as opposed to a great white shark."

All risk-takers - whether they parachute out of airplanes, snort cocaine or lick cookie bowls - weigh pros and cons, McGee said. On the con side for cookie dough: A remote chance of death, and less remote chance of illness. On the pro: Certainty that the dough will taste better than the cookies themselves.

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