Can (And Should) You Eat Snow?

Whether it's catching snowflakes on your tongue, making impromptu snowcones after a blizzard, or being tempted by Reese Witherspoon's controversial snow salt chococinno, eating snow comes with some caveats. Sure, you can do it, but only in moderation, and choosing where and when you pick snow can make all the difference. Also, if you're under the impression that eating snow can quench thirst because it's similar to drinking water, think again; according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, snow actually dehydrates you, making moderation all the more critical.

While very freshly fallen snow is relatively harmless in small quantities, very often, even what appears to be pure just isn't. This is because snowflakes can pick up pollutants from the air, so even the whitest-looking powder can contain traces of harmful chemicals. Of course, once it's on the ground, there are innumerable ways it can become contaminated — from being shoveled to being stepped on by humans and critters. And let's not even get into yellow snow.

For all you fans of edible snow munchies, don't mourn just yet. There are ways to make eating snow a safe and stress-free affair. If you live in a bustling city, you may have to go to the countryside, so carry a few flavoring sauces if you're planning on a snow cone party.

Eating snow: the good, the bad, and the yellow

Catching snowflakes on your tongue seems innocent enough, but if you've ever seen the dainty lattice-like structure of a snowflake, you'll understand just how easy it would be for them to snag onto other little particles. As it falls through the air, snow picks up various air pollutants like sulfates, nitrates, formaldehyde, and even mercury, as Jeff Gaffney, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Arkansas told NPR. The most common pollutants entangled in snow are soot, released from burning coal and wood. So, that snowflake on your tongue, as pretty as it looks, has a lot of time before it hits the ground to soak up what else is floating through the air, and will be worse the worse the air quality is. 

Of course, the air contaminants trapped in the snow are usually well below toxic levels, so it's not a reason to panic. However, snow already on the ground is a different ball game because it can be subject to dirt, toxins, animal waste, and more, making it potentially more dangerous to consume. For the same reason, even if it appears white, plowed snow should also not be ingested. Even if snow looks clean, it may contain harmful substances, which should tell you enough to figure out that eating snow that is any color other than white is entirely out of the question. Even freshwater algae can proliferate on it, giving the once-white crystals a red, green, orange, or otherwise dark hue.

If you really want to eat snow, here's how to do it right

With the potential dangers, it's no surprise that nutritionists like Harriet Skevis of Northwell Health err on the side of caution, and advise readers of Fox Weather, that eating snow is just not worth the health risk. But if you feel otherwise, there are ways to mitigate unwanted substances hitching a ride into your body on the fluffy white powder.

Remember how snowflakes get entangled with air pollutants? The silver lining is that snowfall actually cleans the air due to that phenomenon, so it's best to wait a few hours into snowfall before picking some to eat. Also, why eat off the ground if you can use a bowl? Once it's been snowing for a while, place a clean bowl outdoors in a raised area where it's safe from dirt, birds, and other critters, and collect all the fresh snow you want.

Though there's no way to guarantee that it's a hundred percent pure, you've still managed to eliminate many sources of contamination. Now, add a flavoring of your choice to it, or enjoy its fluffy crunch, as is. However, if you like doing this regularly, we'd highly recommend making your own "snow" at home with ice cubes and either a shaved ice maker or a suitably robust blender. There are tricks to make ice freeze faster, so you won't have to wait for the weather gods to get your snow cone fix. And for a snowy beverage counterpart, try the viral snowglobe cocktail.