One morning there was a tapeworm in my cheese. Not a fully-grown tapeworm obviously, they can live for 25 years and be anywhere from 15 feet long (pork tapeworm) to 25 feet (beef tapeworm) to 60 feet (the fish tapeworm). I would have noticed something that long in my cheese. No, these were just tapeworm eggs.
I was on a road trip to one of the remote clinics I visit in Alberta. I had felt fine all day but at midnight when I was trying to go to sleep, my heart started pounding. That was my first indication that something had gone wrong. Fortunately, I was able to get muscle tested on the spot and quick series of tests indicated that my heart as an organ was testing normally, but my stomach and small intestine were off. It was interesting that at this stage, I didn’t feel any digestive symptoms, only cardiovascular symptoms.
A muscle testing parasite screen revealed that my stomach needed 1200mg of praziquantel. If it had been 6600mg of praziquantel, that would have been the intestinal fluke that causes celiac disease; 1800mg would have been a dwarf tapeworm; but 1200mg could only have been a full tapeworm. Since I never leave town without praziquantel, I had some on hand. I popped the necessary dose and within 15 minutes my HR calmed down and I was happily asleep, ready to conduct assessments the next day without missing a beat.
But it got me thinking about what everybody else on the planet does when they get a tapeworm and that lead to my wondering about where mine had come from. It was necessary to mentally retrace what I had eaten that day. Here’s a short list:
How I narrowed it down to the cheese
Breakfast: some sliced Gouda cheese from the deli in a grocery store, some olives, a croissant and a coffee with cream.
Lunch: a Sub, with beef, various vegetables, some sliced Swiss cheese and no sauces. I had them microwave the sub for 45 seconds after preparing it and putting in all the ingredients.
Snack: a glass of wine and some various types of cheese, crackers and fresh grapes.
Dinner: Spanish Tapas. Goodness, there were over 100 ingredients, I wouldn’t know where to start. Fish, shrimp, more cheese. There was even a plate of tuna tartar, seared on the outside and rare on the inside.
As it turned out, I had a lot of cheese that day. While I was drifting off to sleep, I wondered which of the things I had eaten carried the tapeworm eggs. My bet was on dinner, I assumed it was the Tuna tartar. Never eat raw fish, I reminded myself… The fish tapeworm grows to be 60 feet and is the leading cause of people being hospitalized from a parasite. And since there were no leftovers from dinner to muscle test my theory, the story could have ended there.
But I like to be thorough, and the next morning I tested the one thing that was left over from the day before: the morning’s deli cheese. To my delight, it produced a weak test response and 1200mg of praziquantel cancelled that weak response out. It wasn’t dinner at all, the tapeworm eggs had come from the deli cheese.
Experiments in Muscle Testing
That was a busy two weeks, I think I held assessments in about 5 cities but I kept the leftover cheese wrapped in plastic and tinfoil as I wanted to run some experiments on it when I had a few days off. After all, it’s not every day you get a sample of tapeworm eggs to experiment on…
My question going into the experiment was “what does it take to kill tapeworm eggs so that in future I can teach people how to avoid getting infected with them?”.
But before we look at the results, it might be interesting to understand why I didn’t see them to begin with. As you can see from looking at the piece of cheese in question, it doesn’t look like anything out of the ordinary except stale cheese, which a month later is exactly what it was…
The Size of Tapeworm Eggs
Tapeworm eggs are very small. Specifically, they’re about 60 nanometers wide, which is invisible to the human eye. Here’s a translation of what 1000 nM looks like:
The mind can’t conceive of a number as small as 60 nanometers, so here’s a real-life example:
Factoring a size of 60 nM wide, you could fit 14 million tapeworm eggs on the tip of a pencil. And all you need to be infected with is one.
I often remember the line from Jurassic Park: Life Will Find a Way.
What the Tapeworm Eggs were doing in my Cheese to begin with
This is actually a more simple process than you might think. It was cheese made from cow’s milk so clearly it was the beef tapeworm. I can imagine the following scenario:
- The cow has a tapeworm, fair enough.
- The tapeworm produces up to 500, 000 eggs per day (half a million)
- The cow excretes these eggs in its milk (that’s how most parasites are passed on within a species)
- The tapeworm eggs were clearly NOT killed in the milk pasteurization process
- The farmer sells the tapeworm milk to the cheese guy
- The cheese guy turns the milk into wheels of cheese (given the jolly name of “truckles”, by the way) and sends these off to the grocery store’s central shipping warehouse
- The tapeworm eggs were clearly NOT killed in the cheese fermentation process
- The grocery store company ships individual truckles of cheese to the deli department at each location
- The deli clerk chops it up and puts out delicious, sliced cheese parcels for sale
- Leonard likes cheese, buys some for breakfast and gets a tapeworm
- So do about 10, 000 other people across Canada.
And after 5 years or so of miserable health issues, some of these people come in for a muscle testing assessment and wonder where they could have possibly got a tapeworm from…
Whose fault is this? The dairy farmer may not even know his cows have a tapeworm and if he did, and de-wormed them, they’d just get reinfected from the muck they live in. From an educational standpoint, most diary farmers think they only need to give the cows ivormec (ivermectin) which treats strongyloides but not tapeworm. I would think the eggs should be killed off in the pasteurization process but clearly they aren’t… The cheese guy would have no idea he was buying tapeworm milk. The grocery store has no way of testing cheese for parasites, at least no cheap, easy way and they don’t know how to muscle test, which is free but a bit complex in an industrial setting.
I suppose I could have muscle tested the cheese before I bought it as the tapeworm eggs would produce a negative electromagnetic charge that would have a temporary suppressing effect on the body’s bioelectric field but it’s inconvenient to muscle test every bite that goes in your mouth. What we need is more awareness on the part of national health regulatory bodies that parasites are a problem, so that adequate de-worming policies can be put in effect at the level of the dairy farmer or else more efficient parasite cleansing post-production. It’s popular for the national news to announce recalls on products with Listeria, E.Coli and Salmonella. Why is nobody talking about tapeworms? Or Flukes, or Roundworm, or Giardia or Strongyloides. These parasites cause almost every medical condition in existence but we pretend they aren’t there and that medical conditions just cause themselves. There’s something wrong with this picture.
But enough on that rant, let’s be proactive and understand what can be done about the parasite problem at the level of the end-consumer. If you’ve got cheese full of tapeworms, what do you do about it?
And the 7 Experiments I did with it
The question going into this was what everyone needs to know: How do you kill the tapeworm in your cheese?
Experiment 1: Establishing Parasite Egg Density
The initial question is this: was it one egg in the whole piece and I took the unlucky bite, or were there multiple eggs? I addressed this variable by muscle testing the whole piece, then cutting it in 4 smaller pieces and testing each of these. I kept doing that until I couldn’t get a smaller piece. At every subdivision, the test sample produced a weak test response that was reactivated when I introduced 1200mg of praziquantel.
Conclusion: there were tapeworm eggs saturated throughout the cheese at a minimum density (but possibly much higher) of 1 egg per 2 square millimetres.
Experiment 2: Resistance to Freezing
Sashimi’s central claim that raw fish is safe to eat is based on the promise that it has been frozen immediately after harvest to kill off any parasites or their eggs. I wanted to see how the beef tapeworm egg would respond to freezing. This would not only be interesting in itself, but might illuminate why so many people get sick from supposedly safe sushi.
A sample of the cheese was frozen in a home freezer unit at -4°C/24.8°F for 36 hours. Upon testing, the sample produced a weak response, meaning the eggs were alive and well after 36 hours in sub-zero temperatures. I was fascinated that nature had evolved a way to keep life alive below zero and thought a study of the beef tapeworm egg could make a valid contribution to the field of cryogenics, but at the same time I was appalled that everyone on the planet is eating raw fish under the false pretense that it’s safe and parasite-free. How many restaurants get the temperature low enough? Is there a low enough temperature? This issue deserves its own article.
Conclusion: freezing to -4°C for 36 hrs is ineffective at killing tapeworm eggs. By association, people probably should not eat sushi or sashimi if they want to stay healthy.
Experiment 3: Resistance to Microwave Radiation
Different pieces of the infected cheese were placed on a saucer and microwaved for various durations with the following results:
5 seconds: cheese still tested weak (meaning the eggs were still alive)
10 seconds: cheese still tested weak (meaning the eggs were still alive)
15 seconds: cheese still tested weak (meaning the eggs were still alive)
20 seconds: cheese tested strong, the eggs had been killed.
Conclusion: while 20 seconds was sufficient to kill the parasite eggs in 1 piece of cheese approx 1/2 inch across, it should be understood that microwave radiation requires more time to penetrate and cook progressively larger items, so 20 seconds should be considered a baseline but not a guideline. Larger items could require a minute or more to be rendered parasite-free but microwaving is a valid option to ensure your food is parasite free.
Experiment 4: Resistance to Boiling Water
A piece of the cheese was placed in a glass of water that was at a temperature of 220°F (100°C). Initially the glass of water-with-cheese continued to produce a weak muscle testing response. It was tested every 10 seconds. Around the 60-second mark the water-with-cheese no longer produced a weak response, meaning the parasite eggs had died off. Since the cheese was sliced at 1mm of thickness, it was assumed that heat penetration was almost instantaneous and that the eggs had the ability to resist boiling temperatures for the first 50 seconds.
Conclusion: Boiling water kills parasite eggs quite quickly. This is a valid approach when working with water or milk products, but is only practical with food in terms of cooking, not treating something like cheese which, let’s face it, is not commonly served after having been dunked in boiling water.
Experiment 5: Resistance to Alcohol
The cheese was submerged in a glass of red wine (I couldn’t find isopropyl alcohol and didn’t want to waste scotch so I used a bit of 2014 Shiraz from Cedar Creek, Okanagan Valley. Not that I wanted to waste the Shiraz but it was the lesser or two evils). The glass was re-tested every hour and produced a weak response on the 5th hour. My thought process here was that people have consumed alcohol throughout all of recorded history. I was wondering if there was some health benefit to fermenting water, grapes, etc, and it seems that there is. It seems reasonable to assume that fermentation kills all parasites but since we don’t soak our food in alcohol for hours, this is not practical. It does open up the possible benefit of drinking alcohol with food as a way of killing parasites consumed with the food, but I didn’t want to do this experiment on myself as I’d already picked up this tapeworm once.
Conclusion: Alcohol kills parasite eggs eventually, but is not practical in immediate terms.
Experiment 6: Resistance to Vinegar
The cheese was submerged in plain vinegar. There was no instant effect but at the 2-hour mark the glass no longer produced a weak response, meaning the eggs had died somewhere between 60 and 120 minutes. This illuminates the pickling process and perhaps explains why pickling foods has been a popular way of preserving them throughout history. Clearly the vinegar kills parasite eggs quickly. Maybe one day pickled cheese will become a trend?
Conclusion: Vinegar kills parasite eggs quickly but doesn’t have practical application for most foods.
Experiment 7: Resistance to Hot Sauce
The cheese was submerged in hot sauce. Not just any hot sauce but in fact the hottest hot sauce I have ever found. This sauce is so hot that a single drop on a fried egg can give you a stomachache. That explains why there was still some available for this experiment, nobody ever eats it. I didn’t know what to expect but I was half-expecting the sauce to kill the parasite eggs on contact with the cheese. I had often wondered if some cultures used hot sauce over the millennia because it conferred some kind of resistance to parasites, or at least killed the parasites in that specific dish. To my surprise it didn’t work at all. I ended the experiment at the 24 hour mark. Whole swathes of people in Central and South America are eating hot peppers thinking they confer parasite resistance. There’s no evidence to support this. I suppose I could have tried different hot sauces but if the hottest one didn’t work, why would a mild one work? More vinegar, maybe? But then that’s the vinegar working.
Conclusion: Hot sauce is functionally useless at killing parasite eggs, at least the ones suspended in cheese.
Summary of the Conclusions
Clearly, tapeworms are a lot more common than we think. You can get the beef tapeworm from cheese and by association, any other milk product including milk and yogurt. This might explain why about 5% or 1 of 20 people that I assess has a tapeworm. In case it helps to avoid them, here’s a short list of what works and doesn’t work in terms of cleansing your food from parasite eggs:
1. You can’t see parasite eggs in your food, they’re too small, so if you’re eating an animal product, it’s safest to assume it’s infected.
2. Freezing your food is ineffective. It would be interesting to run a set of experiments to see how cold it would have to be (and for how long) before a parasite could catch its death of cold, but for the purposes of home freezing at least, it should be considered useless.
3. Microwaving is a great idea. I wouldn’t suggest cooking with a microwave because it makes your food taste disgusting, but using the microwave as a parasite cleanser (20 to 60 seconds) is a great way to ensure you’re not eating parasite eggs, particularly when you’re travelling and can’t afford to get sick. When I’m travelling I try to get all my food microwaved for a quick burst after it’s been prepared, although that isn’t always practical in a sit-down restaurant. It’s easier with takeout, but a bit hard to explain why I need them to microwave hot food when it’s still hot. I tell them I like it really hot…
3B. In general this is why cooked or baked food is safe, the heat has the same effect as microwave radiation. The problem is that parasites are often in the sauce, cheese, yogurt, dressing, etc, which is put onto food after it’s been cooked.
4. Boiling works but only for food/water/milk that needs to be boiled. It wouldn’t be practical with ice cream or the cheese put on a cheeseburger after it’s cooked.
5. Alcohol may kill parasites in the timeframe needed and this means drinking alcohol with your food may confer anti-parasitic benefit. There would be multiple variables: alcohol content by percentage (e.g. beer is 6%, wine is 14%, liquor is 40-60%), ratio of alcohol to food, and overall quantity of parasites ingested. At the very least, alcohol itself is generally safe from parasites, which covers common water-bourn parasites such as giardia.
6. Vinegar works in about 2 hours, but practically speaking, that only means food pickled in vinegar will be parasite free.
7. Hot sauce and hot peppers have no apparent anti-parasitic benefit. That is a marketing myth made up by the hot pepper people.
Where to go from Here
Well, you might want to start muscle testing your cheese… That wasn’t the first instance where I got a parasite from my cheese, just the first time I decided to write about it. The previous instance it was the common roundworm (identified with 100mg of mebendazole) – no idea how that got in the cow.
We’d need to rewrite the book on how health regulatory agencies police this, and on how the public is educated to avoid it, and that’s simply not realistic in the context of this article. It’s just that I don’t like to see people get ripped off in their health. We have the right to be healthy, and that starts with awareness.
If you want to eat cheese and not think about all this, try baked Brie. It’s delicious and the oven temperature would render it quite safe.
Otherwise, eat cooked, boiled, microwaved or pickled food, have alcohol with your meal if you like, and that’s the most you can do. If you still pick up a parasite, find someone who knows how to do a muscle testing parasite screen, find out which one you got and get it out as soon as possible.