There’s something you have to give the human race credit for and that’s our perseverance. What other mammal would keep on eating something poisonous until they found the right bit to eat? You would have thought that when one human saw a fellow human eat something and then keel over dead, the other would have said to himself “Hmm. I’m not going to eat what he just ate.”
So he wanders across, likes the look of the food that just killed his friend and tries a different part which hasn’t been eaten and thud, another one gone. It was probably an artichoke, potato, lima bean, casava or a mushroom of some kind.
So here are things we eat that used to kill us until we got the hang of dealing with them.
Raw Cashews. Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to buy a bag of these delicious nuts from the local shop, they’re actually my favourite nut. But that’s because they are nicely roasted and salted. Eat them raw though and you could have a problem. The kernels have actually been steamed to remove the dangerous chemical urushiol which is related to poison ivy and can cause an unpleasant reaction on your skin. In large amounts, raw cashews can be fatal.
Elderberries. While elderberries are often used as a medicinal plant and found in homoeopathy remedies to treat skin wounds and colds, the leaves, twigs and seeds contain a deadly chemical related to cyanide which can cause severe illness and nausea if eaten. While some varieties are safe to eat, those that aren’t ripe or cooked properly can cause diarrhoea and seizures.
Fugu. The puffer fish is a Japanese delicacy that if not prepared correctly can kill you or cause paralysis and asphyxia and a person is completely unaware that his/her central nervous system is slowly closing down, before experiencing this paralysis. The fish, normally eaten raw, can only be served by highly trained chefs with years of experience in preparing fugu. This is because its internal organs contain the lethal poison tetrodotoxin, a substance 1,200 times more toxic than cyanide, which for the more daring foodies wanting a dish to die for, provides a slight tingling sensation. This hasn’t stopped the Japanese, who continue to consume 10,000 tons of the fish every year.
Cassava. This is a tropical root crop, also known as tapioca, that’s found in South America, Asia and Africa and used as a filler in chips and cakes. Imported raw cassava is particularly dangerous because it contains a toxin called linamarin which the body converts to the deadly cyanogenic glycoside when eaten raw. The only way to eat it safely is to first peel it and then boil it thoroughly.
Blood Clams. Blood clams are harvested in areas of the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Unlike other varieties of clams that are safe to eat, the blood clam can ingest viruses and bacteria including hepatitis A, typhoid and dysentery during its life because it lives in lower oxygen environments.
Ackee. Taking a bite of Jamaica’s national fruit can cause severe vomiting known as Jamaica Vomiting Sickness thanks to a poison it contains called hypoglycin. It can also cause coma or death if eaten before it’s fully ripe. Originally indigenous to West Africa, the black seeds of this fruit are always toxic, but the yellow coloured flesh is apparently okay to consume if the red fruit has burst open.
Sannakji. This Korean raw baby octopus, sometimes known as Korean Viagra, is particularly deadly because it continues to move after it has died and even after it has been chopped up into small pieces. Even when the limbs have been removed from the body and covered in sesame oil, its suction caps still conserve their gripping power so they are able to latch onto your mouth and throat, becoming a choking hazard for novice eaters and causing asphyxiation. Then again sannakji connoisseurs actually get off on the sensation of the octupus’ legs attempting to climb back up the throat. The only advice for beginners would be to chew before swallowing!
Lima Beans. You really have to cook Lima beans well before you eat them because the raw beans contain a product called limarin. Just a handful can make someone violently ill so always ensure they have been cooked at least 10 minutes and never, ever put them in salads raw unless you hate your dinner guests. Cooking renders them harmless and gives you lots of good nutrition.
Nutmeg. Nutmeg contains myristicine, which is psychoactive. If that wasn’t enough, too much of it will cause vomiting, sweating, dizziness, hallucinations and headache. Not to worry though, the amount normally used in any cooking is not enough to give you any symptoms, but lately there has been a fad by teens to get high on nutmeg… with very unhappy results.
Kidney Beans. Kidney beans contain the toxin phytohaemagglutinin, which will make you extremely ill and in some rare cases has killed. The beans MUST be boiled for 10 minutes before cooking, and that includes slow cooking. These beans become five times more toxic when heated to the temperatures used in slow cooking than they are when raw, so never just add them to a stew or chili without boiling them first. Better yet, use canned kidney beans. Only a few will land you in hospital wishing you had died. A few more and there is no wishing about it.
Cherries, Apricots, Peaches and Plums. These contain cyanogenic glycosides like cassava that creates cyanide in the stones and have a kind of almondy taste. Swallowing a stone or two is not going to have much effect – our bodies will deal with a certain amount of cyanide but it is more dangerous if you chew them. This makes children particularly vulnerable, especially if they get into a full bowl and don’t de-pit the fruit. Some people die every year (not just children) from eating too many pits, but you do have to work at it. For most of us, one or two is not a problem.
Rhubarb. You probably won’t die from it if you eat the leaf, but it contains oxalic acid salts that can cause kidney problems, coma and convulsions. However, the stalks are not a problem and even with the leaves, you would need to eat about 5 lbs before you reached a fatal dose. Just don’t think they look like great greens and why let them go to waste – you will be very ill.
Potatoes. Potatoes are perfectly safe unless they have turned green on the skins or are sprouting. They contain solanine, which develops with exposure to light – one reason to always keep potatoes in a cool, dark place. If you eat too much, you will experience severe digestive problems or even death.
A word of warning. Never give raw potato skins to your dog as cleaning up the resulting diarrhoea and vomiting is something you don’t want to do more than once.
Apple. An apple a day will keep the doctor away, as they say. Unless you eat the seeds, that is. Like cherries and other fruits, they contain cyanogenic glycosides causing cyanide. Seeds from one apple will not likely cause an effect but people have eaten enough to die from it.