Coffee is one of the most popular beverages globally, and it comes in numerous forms and fashions. However, one of the craziest things I’ve encountered is people putting match heads inside their coffee. It seemed weird and dangerous to me, but it turned out it can be good for you in many ways after some research. So, why do people do it?
Match heads often contain potassium chloride, which can be used as a salt substitute. It can drastically improve the taste of bad coffee. Other substances in the match heads can help prevent bug bites, calm oversensitive teeth, etc.
While it’s entirely safe for an adult to consume a couple of match heads, eating more can have severe health consequences. Here’s everything you need to know about match heads in your coffee and why some people do it.
What Does a Match Head Contain?
Matches were invented centuries ago. At first, they were sulfur-based and were the closest thing to today’s strike-anywhere matches. After a while, the phosphorous-soaked paper was developed as a way to strike the matches.
As humans gained a more thorough understanding of chemistry and the reactivity of elements, modern matches came to life, where phosphorus sulfide and potassium chlorates ignite the flame in a match.
Sometimes, the chlorates are replaced with nitrates, or other compounds are added to the mix, such as glass powder and binders. The only thing that never changes is the phosphorus elements.
Phosphorus is one of the most highly reactive elements in existence. It’s rarely found in a molecular state outside of compounds that reduce its reactivity. White phosphorus, for instance, is so reactive it has to be stored underwater. Otherwise, it would just burst into flames under atmospheric conditions.
In the beginning, white phosphorus was used to ignite matches, but they had incredibly toxic fumes, so the authorities banned them. They came back after red phosphorus had been discovered, which isn’t poisonous like its “white” allotrope.
The potassium chlorate provides oxygen to the reaction, making the match much more explosive. One important thing to note here – today’s safety matches don’t include phosphorus in the match head.
The phosphorus is provided on the surface of the matchbox, which reacts with the potassium chlorate in the match head, making the same reaction as the strike-anywhere match.
Is It Dangerous to Ingest a Match Head?
With all those chemicals, toxic, and reactive elements that the match heads contain, one must ask, isn’t it dangerous to put them in your coffee then? The answer is no if you don’t ingest too much. In small amounts, it can prove to be beneficial.
If you swallow a couple of matches, it won’t cause any problems, but a moderate amount can cause mild irritation and symptoms like nausea, mild pyrosis, diarrhea, etc. It’s more dangerous for small children. That is, a smaller amount is required to cause more severe conditions.
Due to the chemicals present in the matches, ingesting many match heads can have more dire consequences, even fatality. The chemicals in the match heads consumed in high levels can cause hemolysis or breakdown of red blood cells.
Red blood cells carry oxygen through your body, and if there are no red blood cells, your vital organs can’t function properly. That gradually causes respiratory failure, kidney and liver damage. In severe cases, heart attacks or strokes may occur as well, causing a fatal outcome.
However, those cases are extremely rare. You would have to ingest around 80 match heads to get to that outcome. People put only one or two in their coffee, so it’s a minimal amount.
If you do go overboard and ingest a few too many, the most common symptom you may develop is diarrhea or vomiting. If it becomes severe, you should watch out for dehydration, as it’s the most serious problem that may happen to you from a few match heads.
Why Do People Put Match Heads in Their Coffee?
Now you know what the matches are made of and how toxic they are. So, why do people sometimes put them in their coffee? Believe it or not, there’s more than one reason.
It improves the taste of (bad) coffee
Have you ever come to the office and take a cup of coffee that sat in the coffee maker for a while? I have, and it tastes like garbage. Luckily, if you have a box of matches in your pocket, you can make it much better. Only one or two ground match heads stirred into the coffee can drastically improve the taste.
It works as a substitute for salt. A pinch of salt is a well-known trick among coffee lovers to enhance the flavor of the coffee while reducing bitterness. However, just as it can improve the taste of your coffee, it can destroy it if you go overboard. Less is more in this case, and you shouldn’t do it too often.
You don’t have to use it only on bad coffee, though. I tried putting it in my favorite salted caramel macchiato instead of the salted caramel, and it gave it a whole new layer of taste I’m pretty fond of.
It protects you from mosquitoes and other bug bites
During wars, soldiers who spent weeks in deep forests and jungles used the match heads to protect them from nasty bug bites. Mosquitoes and other bugs can cause serious illness, so the soldiers ingested a couple of match heads every day to prevent that. Not too much to get sick, but enough to affect them.
As they perspired (a nice way to say sweat), the chemicals ingested with the match heads started to excrete from their pores, repelling bugs and preventing nasty bites.
I have to say that I’m not sure if this is really legit. I’ve heard that military trick a while back, and it does make sense, but as with many of those hacks, you can’t know if they really work or if it’s just a folk tale.
It can help protect oversensitive teeth
In some cases, putting match heads in your coffee can help you if you have oversensitive teeth. Drinking hot or cold coffee can be a problem for people with that condition, so you might need something to help you reduce the sensitivity of your teeth.
Some matches use KNO3 (that is, potassium nitrate) instead of potassium chlorate for match ignition. However, potassium nitrate is a compound that can also be used to calm down teeth sensitivity. Therefore, putting a few match heads in your coffee can help relieve the pain you might feel when consuming hot or cold beverages.
Alternatives to Putting Match Heads in Your Coffee
Although small amounts aren’t dangerous, I wouldn’t recommend putting match heads inside your coffee regularly, simply because of the cumulative damage it might cause. Better safe than sorry, right? Plus, there are better, healthier solutions you can choose to get a similar fragrance.
Suppose you haven’t yet discovered how a pinch of salt might make your coffee taste a whole lot better; try it instead of match heads. If you’re not a fan of salt, I suggest salted caramel. It gives the coffee a whole new dimension, and I drink it as often as I can.
If you want to reduce the bitterness of your coffee without adding sugars, try adding lime or lemon. I don’t prefer squeezing the juice in, but letting a lemon peel sit in hot coffee for a couple of minutes will do wonders for the taste.
Some people use cardamom and replace sugar with honey. It’s healthy but a tasty option.
If you are looking for other ways to make coffee less bitter, I wrote a comprehensive article in another post.