This is “dragon's breath,” the latest Instagramworthy dessert trend.
It’s made by coating cereal puffs in liquid nitrogen, which turns into a vapor in your mouth when you are eating them, creating the illusion that you are blowing smoke.
The novelty dessert has been around for several years, but recently it has become more popular in the US — thanks in part to social media. It’s typically sold at mall kiosks or stands at state fairs, and there are countless viral videos on Instagram and YouTube of teens and young adults exhaling the smokelike vapor while eating the cereal. So how is dragon’s breath made?
Fruity cereal puffs are infused with liquid nitrogen, which comes from an insulated tank. Liquid nitrogen is made from nitrogen gas that’s been pressurized and cooled into a liquid form at an extremely low temperature: around –320 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s colorless and odorless, and it’s so cold that it turns water droplets into a vapor as soon as it comes into contact with air at room temperature. The result is that when you are eating the puffs, it looks like you have smoke coming out of your mouth and nose.
Liquid nitrogen is commonly used in scientific laboratories and medicine as a way to preserve cells, tissues, and even body parts at extremely low temperatures, which is known as cryogenics. It’s also that stuff in the big metal spray can that your dermatologist uses to remove warts and other skin lesions.
In the culinary world, it is used to make gourmet ice creams and add a futuristic touch to cocktails or other dishes. Because it’s so cold, it is sometimes used as a coolant to help preserve frozen foods. Liquid nitrogen is also used to make Dippin’ Dots, the cryogenically frozen ice cream beads of millennials’ childhoods.
Liquid nitrogen is not the same thing as dry ice, which is carbon dioxide that has been cooled and pressurized into a solid form. But they are both incredibly cold, can cause possible injury, and are an increasingly popular ingredient in foods.
The liquid nitrogen–soaked cereal may also come with serious health risks such as burns, frostbite, and damage to internal organs.
“Certainly liquid nitrogen can be harmful to your tissues both outside and inside your body,” Dr. Reed Caldwell, an emergency medicine physician at NYU Langone Health in New York, told BuzzFeed News. Liquid nitrogen is typically safe when handled using the right precautions and safety gear, but it may be a problem for hungry consumers and children who do not handle it properly.
Liquid nitrogen evaporates pretty quickly when it reaches the air, but it could form residual puddles or pools in the dish or cup in which the dessert is served. This is a concern, because it’s still in a freezing liquid form. “Those, if ingested, could be harmful — we are concerned about nitrogen in its liquid form ... it can be destructive to airway and digestive tissues,” Caldwell said.
The extremely low temperatures can also burn your skin if you touch the liquid or the infused cereal puffs, just like heat can burn you. “You can get first-, second-, third-degree cold burns or it can kill the skin [frostbite] and lead to injury, deformity, and infection,” Caldwell said. The severity of the burn depends on how long the skin was exposed to the liquid nitrogen.
There have already been reports of dragon’s breath cereal causing such injuries. Last October, a 14-year-old girl in Florida was treated at the hospital for a severe burn on her thumb that she got while eating the freezing cold treat at the Pensacola Interstate Fair. The burn became infected, and the “ER doctor had to cut it open, cut away the dead skin and get the infection out,” the girl’s nephew told ABC-affiliate WEARETV.
One mom in Florida said that the cereal caused her son to have a severe asthma attack that landed him in the hospital, according to a now-viral Facebook post.
According to Rachael Richard McKenny, her 7-year-old son Johnny had a severe asthma attack after eating a cup of the cryogenic cereal at the Avenues Mall in Jacksonville, Florida. When McKenny realized her son was having difficulty breathing during the car ride home, she pulled up to a firehouse for help.
EMTs gave Johnny albuterol and IV fluids to prepare him for a hospital transport, but his condition worsened. “The nebulizer was not improving his breathing at all and, by the time they got him loaded into the ambulance, he needed a shot of epinephrine,” McKenny wrote. He has since returned home and is recovering, but McKenny is warning others of the liquid nitrogen snack, which she believed triggered the asthma attack. “PLEASE, if you know someone that has even just a mild case of asthma, do NOT let them have this snack ... My son could’ve died.”
Liquid nitrogen is an asphyxiant, or a substance that can cause unconsciousness or even suffocation. “Do not use liquid nitrogen in an enclosed space. Nitrogen gas will displace the oxygen and may lead to oxygen deprivation/asphyxia if used in an inappropriately ventilated area,” Yale University’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety wrote in their safety guidelines for liquid nitrogen ice cream.
Health officials in some states have issued warnings about eating foods made with liquid nitrogen.
Restaurants and retailers who sell the liquid nitrogen dessert are regulated by local and state health departments, not the Food and Drug Administration, and some have already taken action. In June, officials from the New York State Department of Health sent a memo to local health departments warning about the cereal and its potential to cause frostbite or damage to the mouth, esophagus, and stomach.
“There is potential for injury associated with the use or service of liquid nitrogen, so we advise that precautions be taken when preparing or eating liquid nitrogen puffs,” according to a Suffolk County press release.
Restaurants and food purveyors can create the snacks with liquid nitrogen and devices from other companies. One Colorado-based supplier sells both a nitrogen tank system called the Cryo Cube and industrial-size bags of the dragon’s breath cereal. Canyon’s Liquid Nitrogen Systems did not immediately respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
If you’re going to try dragon’s breath, use a utensil to eat it and avoid contact with any liquid that’s left over in the cup.
Of course, not everyone who eats the dessert will get injured and there are plenty of people who have enjoyed dragon's breath without experiencing adverse health effects.
So if you still want to try the cryogenic treat, just know the potential risks and handle it with care — which means using a skewer or utensil to pick up the puffs so you don’t touch them with your fingers, and making sure to toss the cup with any residual liquid. Use caution when giving this product to children, Caldwell said.
If you touch any liquid nitrogen, look for changes in skin color. If it’s just a little red, you’re probably fine. “If the skin is turning white, black, or it’s blistering — you should probably be evaluated by a doctor,” Caldwell said.