Spit Happens – On Your Birthday Cake!

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We’re programmed to blow the candles out on birthday cakes and then enjoy the dessert.  How splendid!

…But you realize people are spitting on it, right? Yep, birthday cake is a health hazard! For years I’ve ignored this gruesome detail at birthday parties.  If you’re not the birthday boy or girl, you better hope you have a strong immune system and a pack of probiotics!

For goodness sakes, it’s gross!  But we overlook it, don’t we, in the name of icing and sprinkles… now there’s a study published in the Journal of Food Research which has discovered that blowing out birthday candles results in 1,400% more disgusting germs on the cake’s frosting than if those candles aren’t blown out.

(I’ll take a slice of birthday cake with a Z-Pak please!)

This wasn’t the first study either. Others prove that certain organisms in your saliva pose a serious health risk.  Studies only test regular candles, so don’t get me started on those trick relighting candles which turn your party into the pneumonic plague.

I think next time, I’ll squirt the cake with a pocket-sized hand sanitizer after the candles are blown out by everyone else. Or better yet, a personal mister filled with Colloidal Silver! Yeah, I love that idea because the alcohol in hand sanitizer could sting someone’s mouth.  (Umm, Suzy, you’ll have to leave the party now.)

I can see you rolling your eyes from here, worried about how silly or antisocial you will appear for not bonding with the birthday boy and all that splattering spit on the communal cake. Maybe you can make an exception for your adorable toddler, or your spouse, but not for your neighbor’s second cousin – yuck!  No matter how delicious the buttercream icing is, it’s not worth that level of germ exposure!

Here’s my God’s honest truth:
If I was at a restaurant and the waiter came over and blew on my food, I’d get up and leave!  I wouldn’t even be nice about it. I’d leave a terrible Yelp review.

Are you with me on this?  Are we germophobes or just precautious, dare I say intelligent?

The older you are the worse the phlegm flying! Forget 8 year old Johnny, consider 88-year-old Edith.  By the time she’s done blowing, you might have to pick her dentures out of the icing!  (Yes I’ll take a slice, hold the wisdom teeth.)

Okay okay, I’m completely out of my mind about this, but just for a moment humor me. The number of unique bacterial species in the oral cavity varies between 500 to 650. They live on your teeth and tongue, and sometimes hide in biofilms. The growth phase for mouth germs is pretty rapid, so if you don’t brush regularly, the number of germs in your mouth becomes exponential.  If you go just 24 hours without brushing, 20 billion germs becomes 100 billion!

These are just a handful of the organisms teeming in the average person’s saliva (i.e. “the icing” on TOP of the icing on your birthday cake):

Streptococcus mutans – Associated with sinusitis, pneumonia, ear aches and meningitis
Rhinovirus – Associated with the common cold
*Epstein-Barr virus or EBV – Chronic fatigue, “Mono” and neurological problems
Herpes Simplex Type I – This one causes fever blisters, aka “cold sores”
Influenze – This is usually the bug behind the flu
Streptococcus – Many diseases including strep throat
Hepatitis B and C – These are dangerous to your liver
Treponema – Gum and periodontal disease
Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans – Yeah it’s a mouthful and it causes gum disease
^ Clostridium – A very dangerous germ causing severe diarrhea

* Symptoms of EBV take weeks to manifest
^ Elderly are highly susceptible to this pathogen and fatalities occur. Use of antibiotics can cause C. difficile. In 2010, more than 90 percent percent of all deaths due to C. difficile occurred in people over 65 years old.

The study
The study I mentioned above was designed to evaluate the “bioaerosols” expelled from our mouth and how they transfer bacteria to the surface of a cake. The researchers spread delicious cake frosting onto a Styrofoam base and then spread foil over the frosting. They pushed birthday candles through the foil, down into the Styrofoam ‘cake’ base.

Then the scientists rounded up people who were interested in eating pizza.  I am dead serious.

After consuming pizza (and probably beer, but I can’t confirm), the test participants blew out the lit candles. Since pizza is my second favorite food behind sushi, I would have gladly volunteered for this research, but no one bothered to ask me. Regardless, frosting samples were carefully applied to agar plates, then incubated to see what would grow. Not all bacteria will grow on a regular agar plate, so keep that in mind, but the bacterial contamination that did result was truly outrageous. It was nothing to celebrate!

The researchers concluded, “Blowing out the candles over the icing surface resulted in 1400 percent more bacteria compared to icing not blown on. Due to the transfer of oral bacteria to icing by blowing out birthday candles, the transfer of bacteria and other microorganisms from the respiratory tract of a person blowing out candles to food consumed by others is likely.” 

Grossed out yet? Here are some ideas for birthday cake toppers that are safer (and a lot less gross than) birthday candles:

Sparklers – these are nice because you can still have something burning for a similar visual effect to candles. Use outside only!
Cake Toppers – Some of the most adorable toppers can be found on etsy.com; you will spend days on that website perusing all the fun and creative ideas!
Candy Canes – They come in all kinds of colors and every slice can have one perched upon it.
Flowers – A real orchid or even a lovely plastic or silk lily would look pretty.
Nothing – When there are thousands of themed birthday cakes, you don’t really need candles to impart the magic.
Plastic figurines – How about a cute figurine of Cinderella or Superman, of course be aware that these are properly sized to avoid the risk of choking.
An app  – Wait – what?  I’m going to begin work on an app to blow out candles using my iPhone.  I will take that to Shark Tank (so don’t even think about stealing my idea).  😉

Why oh why would someone ruin our lives like this?
You might be wondering what type of person would take so much time and effort to destroy birthday traditions and make us obsess about something so inane. I wondered, especially because I have never, ever, not once in my life ever got sick after eating birthday cake.

The Professor of Food Safety from Clemson University named Paul Dawson is to blame. His idea was contrived by his adorable teenage daughter. They all ate pizza prior to blowing so they could simulate an actual birthday party. He said, “We thought it might help the salivary glands get going.

At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I’m going to email Betty Crocker now and ask them to formulate antibacterial cake frosting, and then pay me royalties. This will cut down on the obsessive thoughts of consuming all those germs at your next office birthday party.

Oy! This whole conversation reminds me of the old English proverb, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”