Ever dive deep into a bag of beef jerky, and just when you get to the good stuff (a.k.a. all that powdery, flavorful goodness coating your fingers at the bottom of the bag), you feel like you’re chomping down on…plastic? Surprise! That’s a silica gel packet.
What does silica gel even do?
Silica gel packets are desiccants—a fancy way of saying that they absorb moisture, says Roger Clemens, a pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences professor at the USC School of Pharmacy, International Center for Regulatory Science. You’ll often see these packets in snack food packages, dietary supplement bottles, and medication packets, says Clemens.
Basically, moisture leads to foods getting stale, moldy, and otherwise not fun to eat—so the silica gel helps keep your snack fresher for longer. Silica (specifically, silicon dioxide) is sometimes directly mixed into powdery products in small amounts to prevent caking, adds Clemens.
That doesn’t seem so bad—what’s with the “DO NOT EAT” scariness?
Don’t worry: silica gel is not toxic, according to the National Capital Poison Center (NCPC). Phew.
Basically, that scary label is slapped onto silica gel packets because it’s considered a choking hazard for small children, says the NCPC.
Depending on the packaging and product needs, silica gel packets don’t contain more than five grams of silica gel, and it’s all FDA-approved, Clemens says. That means it’s “non-toxic, is not absorbed or digested, passes through the gut and is subsequently eliminated.”
So, you shouldn’t be eating it necessarily (why would you want to?) but if you did accidentally, it’s not the end of the world.
Can you use those silica gel packets for anything else?
Actually, yeah. Super enterprising people have come up with all kinds of clever ways to re-use these suckers, including:
And sure, these are all worth trying if you can’t bring yourself to throw them out.
But when it comes to your food or meds, don’t play Mad Scientist. “Regulatory agencies recommend discarding them,” says Clemens. “They have a limited ‘shelf life’ in that they can only absorb a limited amount of moisture.” So by the time you’re getting a silica packet, it might have already absorbed all the moisture it can handle—making it basically useless.
The bottom line: Silica gel packets are not meant to be eaten, so…don’t. But if you accidentally eat one, you’ll be totally fine.
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