A Connecticut woman choked on pancakes during a pancake-­eating contest early this April and died three days later. Around the same time, a Colorado man choked to death during a doughnut-eating challenge. It probably comes as no surprise that speed-eating contests are dangerous—but few people realize that soft foods such as pancakes and doughnuts pose any choking risk at all.

In fact, studies have found that soft baked goods are the second-most common cause of choking deaths, trailing only meat. Because soft foods seem so harmless, people sometimes take dangerously large bites and/or fail to chew sufficiently before swallowing. And if people drink beverages while they still have soft baked foods in their mouths or throats, these items can absorb the fluid and expand, potentially blocking airways. White bread and other baked goods made with white flour are particularly prone to this.

Peanut butter is another soft food that poses a major choking hazard. It’s so thick and sticky that it can become lodged in the throat.

Be very careful with soft foods if…

  • You are in your 70s or older. People produce less saliva as they age, greatly increasing their risk of choking. That’s a major reason why most people who choke to death are age 75 or older.
  • You are taking a medication that lists dry mouth among its side effects. This is a side effect of many medications.
  • You are drinking alcohol and/or talking while eating. Intoxication and conversation increase choking risks—especially when combined.

If someone starts choking, perform the Heimlich maneuver on him/her. For instructions, go to NSC.org and search “Choking Prevention and Rescue Tips.”­