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Liquid Nitrogen Cocktails: Smoking Hot Trend Or Unnecessary Risk?

Doctors use liquid nitrogen — a substance registering a wickedly cold 321 degrees below zero Fahrenheit — to freeze warts so they dry up and fall off. Yes, folks, this stuff kills tissue. So imagine what it might do to your stomach if you drink some.

Unfortunately, a British teen recently found out the hard way. The Telegraph reports this week that an 18-year-old had a portion of her perforated stomach removed after sipping the stuff in a trendy cocktail where the substance was used to chill the glass and create a smoky vapor.

And, as ABC News puts it, "celebrity chefs, master mixologists and medical experts from around the world are steamed up" over it.

"Anything that is the least bit hazardous does not belong in the bar," Ray Foley, editor of Bartending Magazine, tells ABC. "People are getting out of hand with these products to show off and not take care of their clients. This nitrogen cocktail; it's ridiculous."

John Ashton, director of public health for Cumbria County in the UK, tells the BBC: "This girl is the victim of an irresponsible alcohol industry that's now competing on gimmicks."

In fact, the British equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Food Standards Agency, issued a warning to consumers after the story broke. "Although it is not a toxic substance, its extreme cold temperature makes it unsafe for people to drink and eat because the human body is unable to cope with such a cold internal temperature," the warning says.

The British teen's doctors aren't talking about what happened in her case. But Corey Slovis, chairman of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville tells ABC: "I imagine what happened was it completely devitalized the tissues and froze it to the point where the gastric acid perforated the stomach."

The thing is, you're not supposed to ingest liquid nitrogen. Bartenders are supposed to swirl it around in a glass until it vaporizes completely, and then pour in the alcohol. But like just about anything, liquid nitrogen can be dangerous when used improperly.

But liquid nitrogen can be used safely, Dave Arnold, head of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute and the man behind the cocktails at Momofuku in New York, tells ABC. And it's popular with customers, he says: "It's mesmerizing." (In fact, he's written a primer on how to use it right.)

The British teen is the latest in a handful of liquid nitrogen victims over the last few years, while the cocktail industry is under constant pressure to come up with new and creative ways to keep customers coming. But are the risks of liquid nitrogen too great to allow its use behind the bar?

What do you think? Take our online survey.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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