Snow Cream: Tasty or Toxic?

With words like ‘Snowpocalypse’ and ‘Snowmageddon’ being thrown around on social media, there’s a good chance you have seen or will see considerable snowfall sometime this winter. While some prefer to hunker down over a mug of hot chocolate, others put some of the frozen fluff to good use. If you grew up in an area where snow was common, snow cream was probably a staple of your childhood winters. While there are regional disagreements on how it’s made – some Appalachian traditionalists swear by adding eggs to the mix, while innovators may recommend adding cocoa powder, flavored coffee creamer, or fruit – everyone can agree on how delicious it is. Well, almost everyone.

Science and Snow

In December 2015, the Ariya Atmospheric and Interfacial Chemistry Research Group, led by Dr. Parisa Ariya, published a study on snow’s absorption of pollutants in the air, specifically those caused by vehicle exhaust. The results showed that snow absorbs exhaust fumes, with all the carcinogens they carry, and sent a round of alarming headlines around the internet. Suddenly, parents who had grown up on snow cream were being told it was too dangerous to feed it to their children.

Headline: Auto Fills Snow with Dangerous Lead

As it turns out, this isn’t really news in the scientific community. As early as 1978, scientists were warning of the dangers of vehicle exhaust and frozen precipitation. Even before that, parents were warned about snow potentially carrying radiation from nuclear weapons testing. More recently, a study done in 2011 found trace amounts of pesticides in snow. If that didn’t seem to slow parents from making snow ice cream at the time, should these new findings influence us at all? Not really, claims Dr. Staci Simonich, who led the 2011 study.

“… I would not hesitate for my children to have the joy of eating a handful of fresh-fallen snow from my back yard,” Simonich said in an interview with NPR.

The concentrations of pesticides found were so low – 100 times lower than what is considered acceptable in drinking water – they were not actually considered to be a danger. While there are some dissenters, the consensus among most environmental scientists seems to be that snow is still safe to eat, particularly in rural areas, and especially after snow has been falling for a few hours, which can have a cleansing effect on the atmosphere. Urban areas are likely to have higher concentrations of exhaust that can be absorbed by snow, so while it may not be an immediate health risk, Dr. Ariya says “… I definitely do not suggest my young kids to eat snow in urban areas in general.”

We All Scream for Snow Cream

After navigating the scientific concerns about snow cream, once you decide to make some, you must then settle on a recipe. Many people insist that the snow must be freshly-fallen; that is, fallen directly into the bowl, not scooped off a porch or car. If you do choose to scoop some snow up, take only the top layer to avoid any contaminants such as grass or dirt. Stay well away from any snow that has been plowed, and of course, follow the age-old wisdom of Frank Zappa: don’t eat the yellow snow — or snow that is anything other than a pristine white, really.

Once you have a large bowl of clean snow, you can use a spatula or a mixer to mix in milk, sugar, and vanilla flavoring, possibly adding an egg for a richer texture. Alternatively, you can use flavored coffee creamer to turn your snow into snow cream. Personally I am a fan of the sweetened condensed milk option; it seems to result in a creamier texture, where the milk will, in my experience, cause the snow to melt too much for my liking.

Snow For Baking

As delicious as snow cream is, it is not the only culinary use that has been found for snow. According to the Wartime Economy Book of Recipes from 1945, snow can be used as a substitute for eggs in baking. Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping from 1877 claims that “fresh snow contains a large proportion of ammonia which renders the cakes light, but which soon evaporates, rendering old snow useless for this purpose.” Recipes for snow fritters and snow pancakes are also available for those who are feeling adventurous, or just feeling snowed in.

Another way to use up some snow, and possibly warm yourself up at the same time, is to make some cocktails using snow.

Decisions, Decisions

As with all things, you will have to use your own judgement on whether you feel snow is safe for you or your children to consume. Scientists seem split on the issue, especially for urban areas, but it is hard to deny the appeal of a bowl of creamy ice cream made from snow, and it’s easy enough to make that kids love to help. Besides, if we eat enough of it, maybe we can avoid piles of snow that are still around in July this year.

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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