Science + Tech

Saliva soup: A delicacy worth tweeting about


Imagine building anything completely out of your saliva. That’s what Cave Swiftlets do, building their nests out of pure saliva high up in the dark damp caves of the Southeast Asian island Borneo. Cave Swiftlets are nocturnal hunters and leave their nests at night. Other hours are spent building a nesting place for the young, hundreds of feet above the cave floor. Imagine making a nest of countless strands of saliva to swaddle your young, nearly suspended in thin air above hungry cockroaches on the cave floor. I couldn’t even begin to fathom the disgusting mess that would be. Instead of trying this techniques ourselves, humans praise the bird nests for other reasons. We eat them.

Known as “the caviar of the East,” birds nest soup is a concoction of a chicken broth with real Swiftlets nests mixed in. The value of the soup is driven by their near inaccessibility. Hunters go way up into the caves to cut down the nests, in respect to the birds taking only the unoccupied abodes and never disturbing any with eggs or chicklets. Hundreds of hunters die each year just trying to harvest the nests. Why would they risk their lives for bird nests? Current market price for the nests are out of control. The average cost in 2003 of nests per oz was US$200/oz where gold per oz is around US$300/oz. That means if you’re visiting Hong Kong, you can expect to spend about $30 US dollars for a bowl of birds nest soup. The magical soup supposedly possesses medicinal benefits, is an aphrodisiac, and has been used as a remedy in east Asia for many years.

Watch this video footage of Cave Swiftlets and their amazing nests:

The salivary glands, soft and squishy, are an often over-looked exocrine contributor to the oral environment. Although we are generally concerned with deficits in salivary flow, excess flow would also pose a problem….unless you are a drooling baby or a Cave Swiftlet! I often see patients under-appreciate the value of saliva in the oral cavity. So here are some random facts about saliva that will put a new perspective on the spit in your and other animals mouths!

1) Saliva is being bought and sold illegally in South Africa, where healthy people are trying to qualify for government medical benefits by buying tuberculosis-infected spit.

2) Research says bat saliva may hold an enzyme that can offer stroke patients a window of opportunity and relief.

3) Your saliva is a natural painkiller! And components of our saliva can even be more powerful than morphine.

4) Exendin-4, a peptide found in saliva of venomous Gila monsters, has been found to have effects as an appetite suppressant, and research is being done in studies of patients with Type 2 diabetes.

~Neek LaMantia, San Francisco ’16, electronic editor

Neek LaMantia

Neek is a dental student at the University of California, San Francisco and ASDA's electronic editor. She works with bloggers to schedule content on Mouthing Off each week and also runs a personal blog called Say Yes to DDS.

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  1. I always knew that spit was important to good oral hygiene, but who knew that it had monetary value. I always wanted to try birds nest soup but not for $30.

    Good post.

  2. Interesting post! My grandfather who lives in Vietnam LOVES bird’s nest soup. He says it helps his heart but I had no idea what it was, so thanks!

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