Have you ever thought about how you would survive if you ever found yourself in the most dire of situations? Nutritional sustenance is always at the top of the list of concerns.
When you think of the things you could eat to survive, leather might linger more on your mind. That’s probably because we know where leather comes from and it’s associated with the meat we eat. Also, because you are likely to have at least one leather item with you at any given time; think shoes, wallet, jacket, bag, belt, car seats, etc.
Is leather edible? Untanned, vegetable-tanned, and oil-tanned leather with no dyes or finishes is edible. Chemically tanned leather, faux leather, and other artificial materials like plastic made to resemble leather are not edible. Only unfinished kinds of leather obtained naturally from animals is edible.
There are several factors can make leather inedible and even toxic, including finishes added to the leather and other components added to make it more durable. There are so many different kinds of leather today, and not all of them are fit for your stomach.
Whether you are thinking of the last resort when facing acute starvation, embracing peculiar dietary habits, or just curious about eating leather, you’ve landed on the right post.
This article sheds some light on the different types of leather that can and cannot be eaten safely. It also guides you on how to prepare this unusual dish.
What Type Of Leather Is Edible?
In a world that has made massive strides in food technology, leather may not have a place on many peoples’ tables. But during prehistoric times, it was a survival snack that was devoured with relish.
When winter struck and food was scarce, people would resort to their leather items for survival. This was, of course, when absolutely necessary because this same leather was also protective clothing against the biting cold.
There are numerous other stories of survivors of war, sieges, voyages, explorers, prisoners, and people who lived in the mountains who resorted to eating leather to survive.
Leather by itself is edible because it is made of animal skin, usually cattle. It consists of water and collagen proteins.
To prevent it from rotting, leather was tanned naturally using plant matter, minerals, or animal oils. These were harmless and made the leather palatable even many years later.
But before you stretch your culinary boundary to include some of your leather goods, it is worth noting that today, leather is made entirely differently.
Faux leather and other artificial materials like plastic made to resemble leather are not edible. Only unfinished kinds of leather obtained naturally from cattle, sheep, or goats are edible.
However, some types of leather, depending on how they are treated and conditioned, contain toxins that are bad for human consumption. Think of all the dyes, polishes, and finishes that are added to leather.
There’s a slight difference between being edible and being palatable or safe to eat. More on that is in the next part of the article.
What Kind Of Leather Is Safe To Eat?
The safety of leather for human consumption depends on the tanning process. Tanning is where the raw leather is transformed into usable material for making different items.
Tanning removes nearly all the nutrients of the leather to prevent it from decay and softens and improves its appearance as a fabric. In most recent times, other substances and even glues and rubbers are added to it that make it harmful when consumed.
That doesn’t mean that all leather is fatal when eaten. Let’s look at each one of them.
1. Untanned Leather
Untanned leather is the most edible and safest leather to eat. It is basically unprocessed skin in its most natural state, meaning nothing has been removed or added to the animal skin to alter it into workable leather.
Untanned leather is already a delicacy in some parts of the world and has high nutritional value. In this form, it’s very similar to jerky.
2. Vegetable-Tanned Leather
Vegetable tanning is the oldest method of processing rawhide into wearable leather. With this method, extracts from the leaves, nuts, seeds, and bark of trees containing tannins are used for tanning leather, and that’s where the term tanning was derived.
Vegetable tanning is the most natural way of tanning leather and also the oldest. This type of leather was eaten traditionally without any consequences as it was treated naturally. Vegetable tannins are really bitter but harmless when consumed.
3. Oil-Tanned Leather
With this type of tanning, animal fats or fish oil is used for tanning the leather. Like veg-tanned leather, this type of leather appears pretty much harmless to eat as it uses only natural fats and oils. As long as nothing else is added, this type of leather passes as acceptable to eat.
Leather You Can’t or Shouldn’t Eat
Now that we’ve discussed the types of leather you can eat without significant health consequences, let’s discuss the other side of the fence – leather to keep far away from your mouth.
1. Chrome-Tanned Leather
Chrome tanning is the most popular method of tanning leather today. It produces results way faster than other methods.
In Chrome tanning, chromium salt (Cr III) is used for tanning the leather. Cr III is a dietary requirement for the healthy functioning of the body. So leather tanned this way is not that bad if consumed though not recommended.
Why? Because this is not the case for Cr VI, which is the carcinogenic form of chrome salts. Also, you can’t gauge how much of this chromium salt or chromic acid you are consuming, and too much of it is poisonous.
So unless you are sure what chrome salt was used and the amount entering your body, you better not eat this type of leather.
2. Alum-Tanned Leather
Also known as mineral tanning, alum tanning utilizes alum, a mineral salt from aluminum sulfate. It is no longer being practiced as widely as before, but some artisanal leather workers still employ this method.
You can never be sure of the allowed intake for these mineral salts you are taking if you choose to eat this type of leather. Nor how you might react with them.
Nonetheless, traditionally, alum and other minerals used to tan leather posed no serious health threat when consumed as these were obtained naturally. The sulfates used today are lab synthesized.
3. Chemically Tanned Leather
Chemical tanning is also known as synthetic tanning. It is the most common tanning method for industrially manufactured commercial leather. It produces the most stable leather with unique traits such as exceptional softness, luster, and enhanced durability.
You do not want to consume this type of leather because of the chemical substances treated with it. They are toxic at any level. Unfortunately, this is the leather that makes a lot of fashion items today.
4. Faux leather
Faux leather, PU leather, or vegan leather is not real leather and should not be consumed under any circumstances. It is neither edible nor palatable and is, in fact, made of non-edible fibers.
This fake or artificial leather is usually made from plastic or other synthetic fibers manipulated and textured to look similar to leather but sell for lower prices.
The surface is typically plasticized, painted, embossed, or lacquered to make it an aesthetically pleasing form of “leather” to the eye but trust us; your stomach will not be delighted with it.
How Do You Eat Leather?
So ideally, any unfinished leather made from cattle hide is edible. But the critical question that you should be asking is whether it is safe to eat.
Only untanned leather is safe to eat and has its nutritional value intact. Once the leather is tanned, it could potentially be contaminated, especially if you are not 100% sure of the tanning process it underwent.
Most artisanal leather crafters still utilize the traditional natural tanning methods, making it safer to eat than mass-produced commercial leather. But only if you trust your source.
However, most large-scale manufacturers will use a combination of any of the methods mentioned above and may also not be transparent about the added chemical conditioners and treatments on their leather.
Therefore, any tanned leather is not recommended for human consumption. It is soaked in treatments that can lead to anything from a mild stomach upset to downright gastrointestinal poisoning when consumed.
Still determined to feature leather in your pantry? Then you must know how to prepare it.
Here’s how to eat edible leather safely:
- To eat leather, you must first clean it by rinsing it under running water. This ensures any dirt and traces or residue of any treatment is washed out.
- After thoroughly cleaning your leather, tenderize it. You can use a mallet or stone to pound it thoroughly then slice it into desired sizes.
- Next, you’ll have to boil the leather until soft. Be prepared to wait for hours because leather fiber bonds are seriously tough to break. Boiling not only softens the leather but also kills germs and bacteria and neutralizes any tannins.
- Once soft, add salt and other seasoning and enjoy(?) your leathery meal.
Some people prefer not to stew their leather. Instead, they salt and sun dry untanned leather after washing it. Then they roast it slowly over an open fire. This will give you a crispier finish.
These preparation methods for a meal are, of course, when the conditions are ideal for such a process. In the worst-case scenario, where water and fire are lacking, there’s no right or wrong way of eating leather. Just chew on the leather as it is. Not that it will be pleasant by anyone’s standards, but that’s not the point in this case.
In a nutshell, all cattle-sourced leather is edible, but not all leather is safe or palatable. Untanned leather is the safest leather to eat. You can also eat naturally tanned unfinished leather, if only from reliable and trustworthy sources.
Avoid consuming any leather item that is synthetically tanned or that you are not sure of the treatment process it went through. It may contain carcinogenic compounds that can potentially make you sick and cause health complications. The same goes for finished leather and artificial leather.
There’s no right or wrong way of eating palatable leather, but boiling it is the ideal and most enjoyable way of taking it.
Up Next: Leatherworking For Beginners – The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide