With so many reports about food contamination (“killer” cantaloupe) and unsanitary, unsafe and unethical practices in the food industry (the horse meat scandal in Europe that is spreading to other corners of the world), it often seems we should be asking what in our food supply is still safe to eat. While too many foods pose a risk to our health after being “treated” and “processed,” others foods are simply dangerous, if not fatal in their natural state.
1. Fugu Fish
Also known as the “pufferfish,” the fugu contains lethal doses of tetrodotoxin, which is also found in poison dart frogs and the blue ringed octopus; it is said to be 1,000 times more poisonous than cyanide, with no known antidote. Chefs in Japan must undergo at least two years of training as apprentices — cutting through over a hundred fish — to know to remove the ovaries, liver and intestines, which are placed in specially sealed containers and burned. In Japan, the fugu is prized for its texture, though some say it tastes like chicken.
A fruit related to the lychee and the longan, the unripened and inedible parts of the ackee contain the toxins hypoglycin A and hypoglycin B. Eating these can cause Jamaican vomiting sickness, which can lead to dehydration, coma and even death, especially in children and those who are malnourished. Cooked properly, ackee is a mainstay of Caribbean cuisines.
3. Keluak or Kepayang Fruit and Seeds
These are the fruit of pangium edule, a tall tree native to Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. The fresh fruit and seeds of the keluak (its Indonesian name) contain hydrogen cyanide and are fatally poisonous if not prepared correctly — that is, by first boiling and then burying them in ash, banana leaves and earth for forty days. With the poison washed out, the seeds are used as a spice in cooking in Southeast Asia.
Cyanide is also found in bitter almonds as well as in the seeds and stones of apples, mangoes and apricots though you’d have to eat quite a few.
Over-ingestion of this innocent-sounding spice used to flavor baked goods and eggnog has led to cases of intoxication and even death among those seeking to acquire, as the British Medical Journal (BMJ) puts it, an “affordable alternative to limited supplies of ethanol and recreational drugs.” Poisoning from nutmeg (which is actually a psychoactive neurotoxin) is “underreported,” according to the BMJ. Nutmeg, maca, paprika and some other spices can also be poisonous to pets.
5. False morel
Eaten raw, this mushroom contains the toxin monomethylhydrazine. While some say false morels are safe to eat once cooked, others advise not to eat them; false morels contain the hemolytic toxin, gyromitrin, which destroys red blood cells. Our bodies metabolize gyromitrin into monomethylhydrazine, which is also used as rocket fuel — great for moon landings but probably not what you’d like inside of you.
6. Snake Wine
Snake wine involves the submerging of an entire venomous snake in a bottle of alcohol, sometimes with insects or a turtle; it is said to be popular in Southeast Asia. The snake’s poison is thought to become dissolved in the liquor and to have medicinal properties. U.S. customs officials report coming upon snakes (including endangered cobras), turtles and sea horses immersed in bottles of alcohol. A Guardian reporter who sampled some of the wine describes the taste as “watery lemonish vinegar,” leading him to “wonder why the Vietnamese bother with the whole thing” and subject wildlife to such a cruel fate.
While not as lethal-sounding as snake wine, Coca-Cola has been ruled as a factor in the 2010 death of a New Zealand woman who drank 2 to 2 1/2 gallons a day. Common sense suggests that drinking that much Coke is probably is not good for anyone, but it’s certainly a reminder that soda, in any excessive amount, is not advised.
A British organization, Remember the Charity, recently hosted a dinner of some of these deadly foods. The point of the meal was a sort of memento mori, to remind the diners “of the unpredictability of life and the importance of taking care of friends, family and the causes they hold dear” and encourage people to “remember a charity” in their will.
I’d rather steer clear of eating anything that could cause, albeit unintentionally, an early demise. What about you?
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