Is Eating Raw Eel Dangerous?
Eels are one of those foods that tend to divide people. With a snake-like appearance and a reputation for being a lowly bottom feeder, the eel often faces a bit of scrutiny. But The Washington Post shares that restaurants are starting to change this narrative with creative ways that aim to reinvent the aquatic delicacy. While eel is always served fully cooked, it’s fair to wonder if this has to do with safety. If you’re wondering whether eating raw eel is actually dangerous, we’ll break down the facts.
There are over 800 species of eels, notes American Oceans, but the most common types to show up on your dinner plate include freshwater eels or marine eels like the conger eel. Seafood lovers typically compare the flavor to that of squid, but with a softer, flakier texture. Since eel is also relatively fatty, its rich flavors can benefit from dishes that help create balance.
TasteAtlas explains that eel is quite common in a variety of food cultures, namely in Japanese cuisine, either torched on top of sushi rice or grilled over steamed rice. Eels are also popular in Europe, being used for stews in places like Portugal, or smoked whole in countries like the Netherlands — Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain even serve sautéed baby eels!
Raw eel can be lethal
Eels have extraordinary defense mechanisms to keep them from being preyed upon, but these can also affect humans when not fully cooked. According to Boston.com, eels have poisonous blood that contains a toxic protein that makes muscles (like the heart) cramp, which is why raw eel should never be eaten under any circumstance. However, when eel is cooked these proteins break down and make the fish safe to eat.
Interestingly, eel blood did prove helpful in our understanding of immunology. Dr. Charles Richet was influenced by the work of Louis Pasteur who had demonstrated that animals could build immunity against certain diseases by being infected with weakened strains of bacteria, explains NobelPrize.org. Richet hoped to prove that immunity against toxic substances could also be achieved, however he found that unlike Pasteur’s experiment, anaphylaxis occurred.
Like most fish and seafood, eels are also known to contain high levels of mercury, which when consumed in high doses can also be dangerous to your nervous system, notes Natural Resources Defense Council. In fact, the FDA even warns that both freshwater and marine varieties can contain hazardous parasites, natural toxins, and be exposed to environmental chemical hazards, which is why consumption should be limited. Whatever way you decide to enjoy the underwater specialty, make sure it’s in moderation and most importantly, make sure it’s always cooked.