Have you ever noticed an inexplicable burning sensation on your tongue? Does a strange “pop” emit when you open your jaw? Or do you occasionally suffer from a stubborn metallic taste that you can’t seem to shake?
Because the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe first come into contact with our bodies through the oral cavity, many common health issues first make themselves known through curious sensory experiences in the mouth, teeth, and jaw area. If you feel, taste, or hear something in this part of your body that doesn’t seem quite right, your dentist may be able to help.
As a general rule, patients rarely hesitate to call their dentist when they are experiencing a toothache, but they often overlook many other easy-to-read signals their body is sending them. The truth is, your family dentist can effectively treat many inconvenient and irritating ailments of the orofacial region – including many that start as minor sensations that are easy to overlook.
Dentists and dental specialists are well-educated healthcare professionals who are trained to diagnose and treat conditions related to the teeth, of course, but also those related to the surrounding tissues. These areas include the lips, cheeks, tongue, throat, jaws and the muscles of the head and neck.
There’s an important reason why universities train dentists to acquire this knowledge: The relationship between the oral cavity and the rest of the body is undeniably significant. It is very common for systemic diseases to have accompanying oral manifestations, and so the oral cavity provides dentists and dental specialists with a unique window into what is happening in the rest of the body. As such, regular oral examinations can in some cases shine light on more serious problems that may be occurring throughout the body.
The problem, or so we’re led to believe, comes after cooking has concluded. Accidentally or deliberately consuming a bay leaf a cook has failed to remove from the pot, the myth goes, can result in serious illness or even death. Why? Well, the leaves of certain other members of the laurel family, plus a handful of biologically unrelated but similar looking plants, genuinely are poisonous when consumed by humans or livestock. While you won’t find any of those for sale at Zehrs, somewhere along the line it became a consensus belief that bay leaves were similarly toxic. In truth, they just aren’t.
Look: consuming too much of virtually anything – including water – can have potentially toxic effects, but the amount of pure bay leaf one would need to ingest to poison oneself is far greater than would be the case in any reasonable, real-world scenario.
Part of the confusion over the herb likely comes from our collective unfamiliarity with using whole dried leaves in cooking. In truth, because they’re no more poisonous than parsley, it’s entirely possible to grind bay leaves and use the resultant herb as you would, say, oregano. Cuban cuisine does exactly that, even adding the powdered leaf to certain bread recipes. There’s been no mass poisoning of which we’re aware.
That said, ground or chopped bay leaf is significantly more potent than the whole dried variety. This is the case for all spices, as increasing the surface area of the plant matter that’s exposed in the cooking process will result in more flavour leeching out. For this reason, chefs tend to prefer the subtler, more complementary effect of using whole leaves.
So why do we inevitably fish our bay leaves out of the final product? In simple terms, just because you can eat something doesn’t mean you should. If you’ve ever accidentally taken a bite of one, you already know that a dried and then cooked bay leaf’s tough, fibrous texture can be downright unpleasant. While a bay leaf releases delicious flavours into a larger stockpot, you won’t be able to access that same type of culinary pleasure by eating the thing itself. Ever cook with a whole cinnamon stick? It’s essentially the same thing.
In theory, if not often in practice, ingesting a whole bay leaf can still be dangerous. Because they remain stiff even after several hours of cooking, bay leaves can scratch the digestive tract and cause some amount of digestive discomfort if swallowed whole or in large pieces. In extremely rare cases, a bay leaf shard can even perforate the intestinal wall.
In reality, though, this is not exactly a clear and present danger. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats compares ingesting a bay leaf to eating a fish bone, which feels just about right; there’s nothing impermissible about it, and it’s highly unlikely to be dangerous, but that doesn’t mean a reasonable person would actively want to do it.
So, by no means would we suggest you serve up a platter of bay leaf tartare at your next dinner platter; you can continue living your life just as you always have. But, the next time somebody around you erupts over the potential catastrophe represented by the whole leaf lazily left in your bowl of chili, know that they are being unreasonable.
As always, this magazine’s nutritional and food safety advice is provided in good faith but is ultimately offered for general information and entertainment purposes only.
If you have serious concerns about what you’re putting in your body, we encourage you to seek the counsel of an actual medical professional in a recognized field.