What would you think if we told you that we eat food produced by poisonous plants every day? Fortunately, many of the mass production techniques ensure we are quite safe. But every now and then, there is an accidental death when someone eats the wrong part of a plant. We’d prefer that this never happens, so we have put together a list of the common poisons that can make it into the kitchen.
Are you familiar with the word “toadstool?” That word is slang for “poisonous mushroom.” So toadstools aren’t a separate plant from mushrooms. There are inconsistencies in identifying poisonous mushrooms. If its origin is unknown, assume it’s poisonous. A good mushroom should have a flat cap with no bumps, pink or black gills (white ones are typically poisonous), and the gills should stay attached to the cap rather than the stalk. Keep in mind this is generally true, but not always.
Once there was a story of death by eating the liver of fugu (pufferfish). The flesh is the only part that is safe to eat. In Japan, fugu chefs are specially-trained and are tested before being given certificates because of the poison level. It’s a 2-3 year process. There is a written test, followed by a demonstration of the chef’s cutting abilities. Then the chef eats the pieces of fugu that he has cut. Only 30% of apprentices pass the test. No, 70% of chefs don’t die; they can fail by failing any part of the test. The poison causes a tingling sensation in your mouth. Also, fugu is the only food officially illegal for the Emperor of Japan to eat, just so he is safe.
Elderberry trees are large and beautiful. Thousands of tiny flowers release a delicate scent. These flowers are used to make elderflower liqueur and soda. Sometimes they are battered, deep-fried, and eaten. But watch out! The roots and some other parts of the elderberry tree are highly poisonous to the stomach. If you happen to be picking elderberry flowers, make sure that you only eat the flower, not the root.
7. Castor Oil
Just saying “castor oil” can create some bad childhood flashbacks. Some people still take it straight or force it on their kids. It also can be added to candies, chocolate, and other foods. In its natural state, the castor bean is so deadly that just one bean can kill a human, and four can kill a horse. The poison is ricin, a high-level toxin that requires strict safety guidelines for those that gather them. But those gatherers still suffer terrible side-effects. Fortunately, what we buy is carefully prepared.
Almonds are seeds, rather than nuts. Bitter almonds have the most flavor. But there is one very big problem: they are loaded with cyanide. Bitter almonds must be processed to remove the poison before they can be consumed. Some countries, such as New Zealand, make selling almonds illegal. The pip from an apricot stone, which has a similar flavor and poison content, can be an alternative. It’s illegal to sell raw almonds in the USA – they must be heat-treated because the poison is destroyed by heat.
Hey, wait a minute, you think. Cherries can be eaten raw, cooked, or made into a liqueur. Plums, apricots, and peaches are their relatives. What are they doing on this list? Well, all of those fruits contain highly poisonous compounds in their leaves and seeds. The poison is prussic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide. It is released if the seeds are chewed, crushed, or slightly injured.
Like the previous two items, apple seeds also contain cyanide, but in much smaller doses. Apple seeds are very often eaten accidentally, but you would need to chew and consume a large number to become ill. There are not enough seeds in one apple to kill, but it is possible to eat enough to die.
Rhubarb produces some of the yummiest puddings and pairs fabulously with strawberries in a rhubarb pie. You can grow rhubarb at home. The leaves have an unknown poison and contain a corrosive acid. This corrosive is even stronger if you mix the leaves with water and soda. The stems are edible and very tasty. For many centuries, rhubarb has been used as a laxative.
Let’s begin by learning some trivia. In 1893, there was a tax on vegetables that didn’t apply to fruit. The Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes are vegetables to settle if they were subject to the tax. Every other country recognizes the tomato as a berry (in other words, a fruit). More trivia: a tomato is an ovary. They can be used in cooking to enhance flavor. Also, to enhance the flavor of tomatoes, sprinkle a little sugar on them.
Potatoes were introduced to Europe in the 16th century and have been a staple ever since. They first got famous because of crop failure and severe famine, but they are the central vegetable of the daily diet for most of the Western world. Potatoes also contain glycoalkaloid in the stems and leaves – and even in the potato itself if left to turn green. Potato poisoning is rare, but it does happen. Death normally comes after a period of weakness and confusion, followed by a coma. Most deaths have come from drinking potato leaf tea or eating a green potato.