Toxic taters? They’re more likely than you think. Potatoes are plants belonging to the Solanaceae family; other notable members include the Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna), Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) and Tobacco (Nicotiana). Potato plants have evolved toxins known as as glycoalkaloids to help protect themselves from insect (and other) predators. These bitter-tasting toxins are concentrated just underneath the tuber’s skin and in potatoes are known as Solanine and Chaconine.
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The U.S. National Toxicology Program’s recommended safe daily dose of Solanine 12.5 mg/day though the actual toxic dose is several times higher. What does this mean? Well, the average potato contains 12 to 20 mg/kg of glycoalkaloid content. Trouble arises when green-skinned tubers are eaten as they typically contain 250–280 mg/kg when peeled. The green skin itself contains 1500–2200 mg/kg of Solanine. The watchword would seem to be “yellow, white or red to avoid becoming dead.”
Feeling a little chili? You just might be poisoned. Indeed, Kidney Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) can be more deadly than kidney stones though most of us don’t keep the latter stored in our pantries. The culprit here is Phytohaemagglutinin, a toxic compound found in Kidney Beans that can be neutralized by pre-soaking dry beans and subsequently heating them to the boiling point in a pot of water for at least 10 minutes – the beans won’t be cooked but the toxin will be rendered hamless. What NOT to do is forget to add kidney beans to your heirloom chili and toss a handful of dry beans into the pot an hour before serving.
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Symptoms of Phytohaemagglutinin poisoning are nasty: nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea for starters, and can result from consuming as little as four or five raw, soaked kidney beans. One key point is that if the beans are cooked below the boiling without boiling for 10 minutes first, the toxic effect of Phytohaemagglutinin becomes five times more potent! Recipes that employ slow-cookers can be deceptive; most recent cases and outbreaks of Phytohaemagglutinin poisoning are associated with crockpots and slow-cookers. You can’t go wrong using canned beans, however.
Don’t put down that fork-full of delicious Strawberry Rhubarb pie just yet, but you may want to pause before culinarily exploring the other parts of the noble Rhubarb plant. The key to staying in the pink is to only EAT the pink – and avoid the green. Rhubarb stalks are sour-tasting and so are the leaves, but for different reasons… they contain different acids. The Malic Acid in the stalks is harmless; the Oxalic Acid in the leaves is most definitely not.
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During the First World War when food shortages and rationing caused households to explore alternate food sources, the British government recommended rhubarb leaves as a healthful supplement. The result was a raft of injuries and poisonings later blamed on the corrosive and toxic Oxalic Acid in the leaves. Fun fact: cooking rhubarb leaves with soda can make them even more poisonous. Do what Popeye does, and stick with spinach.