Why you shouldn’t suck prawn heads during an Italian Christmas feast

Juicy prawns are a central part of a traditional Christmas feast in many parts of Italy, and for many Italians, sucking on the freshly removed head is the very best part.

Why you shouldn't suck prawn heads during an Italian Christmas feast
Photo: Unsplash/Daniel Klein
But you may want to think twice before trying this local custom yourself as health authorities in Spain, where the custom is even more widespread, have warned that it's not safe.
The Spanish Food & Safety Agency, (AESAN) issued an advisory warning diners not to suck the heads of such shellfish because of the health risks associated with cadmium.
Concentrated levels of cadmium (Cd) a heavy metal associated with zinc, copper and lead, are found in the dark meat of shellfish such as prawns, crab and lobster, but cannot be processed by humans and can cause problems in the liver and kidneys.
The metal accumulates in the human body over a period of between 10 and 30 years, and has been classed a category 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
It can cause renal problems or liver damage, demineralization of bones and in the worst case, cancer.

It is also present in high levels in the edible offal of animals, such as kidneys and livers.

In prawns these organs are found in the ‘head’ part – which is considered a delicacy in Italy and Spain.

READ ALSO: Six quirky Italian Christmas traditions you should know about

While the food eaten at Christmas and New Year in Italy can vary greatly from region to region, seafood often features heavily – especially in the south and islands.

The head is pulled off and sucked on before the body is peeled and the white meat consumed.



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Three courses and white tablecloths? What Italian hospital food is really like

Hospital food usually leaves a lot to be desired - but some patients say things are different in Italy.

Three courses and white tablecloths? What Italian hospital food is really like

It’s safe to say that the majority of people preparing for a hospital stay anywhere in the world won’t be expecting much from the food.

But in Italy, some international residents report being pleasantly surprised by the meals they’ve received while in hospital.

READ ALSO: ‘Public vs private: What are your healthcare options in Italy?’

Is decent food to be expected, given Italy’s culinary reputation and its highly-regarded public healthcare system? Or are these patients just a lucky minority?

The Local recently asked readers for their views, and the response was very mixed.

The majority of people who responded to our question about hospital food in Italy rated it as ‘poor’ (25 people) or ‘average’ (17 people).

13 readers rated hospital food in Italy as ‘good’ and four even described it as ‘delicious’. Seven people, however, said they found it inedible.

Sharri Whiting in Umbria says the meals she was served in Italian hospitals were “better than food at US hospitals. Fresher, less institutional.”

“I’ve had white tablecloths set up before the meal comes,” she says.

“Care is taken to provide well-prepared and balanced food,” says Emilia–Romagna resident Jacqueline Gallagher, 66, and 61-year-old Susie Carpanini in Tuscany says the food is “simple and nourishing”.

‘Like in the Autogrill’

“Good variety and tasty,” says Charles Ippoliti, 68, in Piedmont. “Italian food is always better,” says 58-year-old Flavio S. in Lecce, Puglia.

“We found a bar, like in the Autogrill, and the food was fine,” says Davide Bennet, comparing hospital food to that found at Italian motorway service stations.

Many recommend asking friends and family to bring in meals from outside – noting that this is what Italians do – though one reader found this wasn’t necessary.

“I used to take my husband lunch every day (being used to English hospitals) but he was given three courses and preferred their meals to mine!” says 74-year-old Sarah Balmer in Casentino, Tuscany.

READ ALSO: ‘Very professional but underequipped’: What readers think of Italy’s hospitals

Sarah’s husband isn’t alone, as one anonymous 64-year-old reader in Lucca, also in Tuscany, judges Italian hospital food to be “far superior to UK hospitals.”

But 73-year-old Ian Hesketh in Alberobello, Puglia, reports the opposite: “Compared to the UK the food standard is horrendous.”

And Kenneth Treves in Le Marche comments that Italian hospital food is “awful, but I didn’t die of it.”

Hospital meals in the US and UK – better or worse than Italy’s? Photo by Go Nakamura /Getty Images/AFP.

Overall, few of those who responded to the survey were particularly impressed, often describing the food as “bland” or “carb-heavy”.

Jennifer, a 73-year-old resident of Bagni di Lucca, Tuscany, describes “the standard invalid food of white, white, white,” though it was “easy to digest and gave me enough nutrition for what was needed at the time.”

Willem-Jan Kuiper, 59, in Le Marche, had “overcooked semolina and pasta without any sauce” and “almost no protein”.

‘No fresh fruit or vegetables’

There’s “basically nothing edible,” says Joanne Berger, 58, in Montecatini Val Di Cecina.

A few readers highlighted a lack of options for patients with dietary restrictions.

“As a lifelong vegetarian I suffered in Terni in 2016…it took a while for them to understand and the answer was a slab of cheese on a plate,” says Paul Harcourt Davies, 73.

67-year-old Greg Hopkins in Colico, Lombardy, says the small hospital where he was treated “didn’t have the ability to provide for dietary preferences such as gluten free.”

“One could leave fatter and with scurvy,” says an anonymous 61-year-old patient in Arezzo, Tuscany.

Readers may not rate the food in Italian hospitals, but importantly most of you agreed that the standards of care were high.

Thanks to everyone who took part in our survey.