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When I first started working as a cook, I was instructed in no uncertain terms to only use whole bay leaves when cooking so that when the leaves were removed, still whole, one could be sure that no pieces had broken off and remained in the stew (or whatever).

I was told that eating dried bay leaves was akin to eating broken glass in their potential effects on the digestive system.

Yet, just the other day I was eating a rabbit pie and I discovered a whole bay leaf in it. I asked the server, and she said that it was common practice for that restaurant to leave bay leaves in situ.

I guess they can't be that bad for you if restaurants can serve them hidden in the middle of a pie?

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Brings to mind the old "swallowing toothbrush bristles causes appendicitis" urban legend. But if you're wolfing down your food fast enough to swallow a whole bay leaf, I imagine they could present a choking hazard... –  Shog9 Jun 9 '11 at 18:36
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That policy probably has more to do with the unpleasant taste of whole bay leaves. –  Tim N Jun 9 '11 at 19:35
    
@Knives : I blame my military school upbringing for the fast eating ... but I've gagged on a bay leaves quite a few times growing up, to the point where for decades I refused to cook with them. Now, I just make sure to keep a count, so I can remove 'em. –  Joe Jun 10 '11 at 3:59

4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted

There is no reason to worry. The worst thing which can happen is that a piece of bay leaf, being somewhat hard, can lodge somewhere in your digestive system, necessitating a trip to ER. But a medical paper on the topic starts its discussion section with the sentence "Reports discussing ingestion of bay leaves have been exceedingly scant". They only cite 10 references in the period 1950-1990, and most of these are general studies of foreign bodies in the esophagus, not specific studies of bay leaf ingestion.

Given how often bay leafs must find their ways into people's digestive systems (they feature in our food), it is safe to conclude that only a tiny fraction of ingested bay leafes cause problems, else there would be more studies mentioning such cases. The same is true for side effects different from mechanical obstruction: if this had happened, somebody would have published it.

The paper I mentioned is "Bay Leaf Impaction in the Esophagus and Hypopharynx" by Stephen K. Buto, MD; Tat-Kin Tsang, MD; Gerald W. Sielaff, MD; Laurie L. Gutstein, MD; and Mick S. Meiselman, MD. Sadly, it isn't freely available (I could read the full text because my uni has a subscription).

I guess that if you are working as a cook, your workplace may decide that even if the chance for a customer choking on a bay leaf is something like one in a million, they'd rather instill removing bay leaves from dishes as a policy. Probably prudent, although there are more important risks to care about.

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Bay leaves are definitely edible. I have always heard the same warning, but after seeing flaked bay leaves for sale at the store, I concluded they were safe.

This wiki summarizes it as they are safe (if you can stand the flavor), except they are often still stiff after cooking and could potentially cause choking or scratching. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bay_leaf#Safety

Having dealt with them in the past, they are no where near as bad as glass would be.

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I was rushed to the ER after swallowing 2 small pieces of bay leaf that were in a salad served at the Long Beach Diner and lodged in my esophagus cutting me like a rasor blade. It resulted in hours of violent hacking and spitting up blood, xrays, a catscan, and a painful camera probe through my nose and down my throat. Hospital suggested surgery to remove it but I finally managed to dislodge one of the pieces as a result of my violent hacking. Two weeks later the second piece finally passed into my digestive track. Very frightening. Very painful. My digestive system has been in distress for months as a result of the trauma.

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That sure doesn't sound safe to me! –  Doug Oct 9 '13 at 20:58

Broken glass is perhaps tipping it a bit strong, but the thick central stem of bay leaves does mean they stay quite rigid even when cooked, so there is potential for scratching the intestinal lining if a whole one was swallowed.

I don't think small fragments would do much damage however - certainly no more than a bit of un-chewed potato chip or boiled sweet. I have several recipes that call for shredded or ground bay leaf (in curry pastes for example) which obviously can't be removed.

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