Survival Guide: How to test what you eat

Before describing techniques on building a fire, I made sure to go over basic wilderness first-aid. With the same care, I would like to first present my version of the "Universal Edibility Test" before I discuss finding food in future articles.

Some experts criticize the use of edibility tests. Some say it is too strict in that it eliminates potential foods or is an unnecessary waste of energy and resources in a life-threatening situation. Others say that it creates a false sense of safety in eating unknown materials, opting instead to teach people to fast and focus on finding water and rescue.

It's good to know the pros and cons in order to make an educated decision in a time of need, but it's also important to understand the skill in the first place. It is better to know too much than too little.

Almost all edibility tests use the same process of separate, test, and wait. My version uses the same methods, but I stress the senses and digestive systems you are evaluating with each step.

Separate the possible food into parts (e.g. roots, stems, leaves, fruit, flowers). Before beginning the test, do not eat for at least 8 hours. During the suggested wait periods pay close attention to your mind and body, sensing for any reactions to potential poisons.
STEP 1: Select a specific food part.
STEP 2: Wash and prepare (cook, boil, etc.) a very small portion (a "pinch"), as you would to eat.
STEP 3: Smell the possible food. Wait 1 minute. "Bad" smells may be questionable, but anything "nauseating" should definitely be avoided.
STEP 4: Touch the food against the soft skin of your wrist or inner-elbow. Wait 15 minutes.
STEP 5: Touch the food against the skin of your lip for 2 minutes. Wait 15 minutes.
STEP 6: Taste the food for 15 minutes. (Meaning, rest the food on your tongue.) Do NOT swallow.
STEP 7: Chew the food, without swallowing for 15 minutes. Again, do NOT swallow.
STEP 8: Swallow the chewed food. Wait 6 hours.
STEP 9: Prepare a larger portion (about a handful) of the same food part, if no adverse reactions have occurred.
STEP 10: Test once more using the larger portion.
If all is well after this testing, it is probably safe to assume that specific food part is safe.

Remember to use extreme caution when ingesting unknown items; everything you prepare and eat could possibly contain a poison or bacteria which might kill you. When fasting (going without food) until rescue isn't an option due to time or distance, you may find edibility tests a necessary risk, but I leave that choice to you.

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