Food is one of those things you die without. Along with air, water, and shelter, a regular supply of nutritious food is impossible to give up. It would be a cruel irony, therefore, if the food you eat were actually bad for you. Of course, everybody already knows that some food, mostly the right kinds, can be bad for you over the long term, but some foods go beyond high-calorie counts and issues with cholesterol to actively poison you. The strange phenomenon of poisonous foods grows out of the fact that most of what we eat used to be wild species of plants and animals, and the various toxins they evolved were a reasonable defense against predators and parasites. Ironically, this means that the right foods you’re supposed to eat more of are enormously more likely to contain potentially life-threatening chemical weapons than the factory-made junk food you’ve spent a lifetime avoiding.
These are 10 of the worst poisonous foods.
1. Lima Beans
People who enjoy eating lima beans do so under a faint sense of embarrassment as if they’re committing a minor sin against the larger society around them that long ago reached the consensus that lima beans are disgusting. Children famously hate them and will devise elaborate schemes involving mashed potatoes and artfully folded napkins to trick their parents into believing that they’ve eaten them. As often happens, it turns out that the 10-year-olds were right.
Lima beans contain small amounts of an organic compound called linamarin. This stuff is pretty harmless on its own, but when your body starts digesting it, it breaks down into hydrogen cyanide. This is the same chemical that escaping war criminals use to cheat the hangman, and you’ve been telling your children they won’t get any dessert unless they eat a lot of it. Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you hate lima beans like a normal person), there’s a way out: boiling the beans for at least 10 minutes breaks down the linamarin and prevents the chemical chain that would otherwise put you out of the misery that eating lima beans causes among right-thinking people.
“Drinking a glass of wine a day is healthy” is one of the internet’s three favorite facts, right up there with “Nikola Tesla discovered free energy” and “Hitler did nothing wrong.” Like those other two, the myth about drinking wine is mostly untrue, but that never got in the way of a reasonable-sounding excuse to swill wine like Gatorade. You might want to hold off on that, though. In addition to alcohol, which yeast
You might want to hold off on that, though. In addition to alcohol, which yeast secretes because it’s toxic and kills bacteria, most dry wines get their unique texture from a substance called tannin. Tannin is bitter, like most poisons, and plants use it as a natural pesticide. The idea seems to be that no animal, even something as stupid as a caterpillar, will knowingly consume a poison that tastes as bad as tannin. Acacias also use tannin to poison giraffes when they’re being eaten. So naturally, humans came along and bred grapes to put lots of tannin into red wines, cooking sherry, and even tea leaves. Insufficient quantities, tannin can cause lethargy, migraines, and even death, though honestly, you’d probably die from alcohol poisoning long before the tannin in your Zinfandel got you.
If it’s ironic that natural, organic foods are the most likely to contain toxins, then surely it’s a double irony when those predator-repelling toxins turn out to be the reason humans like the food in the first place. Peppers, of various species, are caught in just that kind of bind. The sticky, oily chemical that they developed to repel mammals like us turns out to be the very thing we like about them. It can still kill you, though, so keep your pepper intake reasonable.
The culprit here is an oil-based resin called capsaicin. Pepper plants produce this stuff to discourage small mammals from eating their fruit, the peppers because mammalian digestive systems destroy their seeds. What the plants need to spread is hungry birds, whose stomachs don’t harm the pepper seeds at all, and who may perceive capsaicin as being sweet or otherwise pleasant tasting. This is the reason that the capsaicin is concentrated in the seeds themselves, making those the spiciest part of the whole plant. At no point in the peppers’ evolution could anyone have guessed that there would someday arise a species of mammal whose young males dare each other to eat the seeds as a test of courage, and who would breed the peppers to be hotter than ever because there’s a market for that.
If you saw a child putting nightshade berries in his mouth, you’d run across the yard and take them out of his hand. Then you’d call poison control and maybe go to the hospital for a stomach pumping. Everybody knows that plants of the nightshade family are dangerous, and some (brilliant) people even know why; the plants in this group contain a powerful glycoalkaloid that can be found in any part of the plant. Not just berries, but the stems, leaves, and roots of these 2,400 species can all be clicking hot with poison.
Potatoes are part of the nightshade family, and they’re no exception to the toxic defense club. The part of the potato we eat is part of the plant’s root structure, and it builds up a supply of glycoalkaloids to deter tuber-eating animals like moles and beetles. The varieties humans cultivate are marginally less toxic than wild strains, of course, but there are conditions under which potatoes will poison you good and hard. If you have potatoes that have been stored in direct sunlight, they may have sprouted stems, which concentrate the poison to potentially dangerous levels. Under the skin, glycoalkaloids stain the potatoes’ tissues green, so it’s probably a good idea to throw those potatoes out when you spot them.
5. Diet Soda
Diet soda is supposed to be a healthy alternative to sugary high-fructose corn syrup. Some of them use sugar alcohols that simulate the sweet taste of sugar without the fat-generating kick of normal sugar. Others use a wholly synthetic sweetener called aspartame. Whether or not aspartame is dangerous depends on who you ask. The artificial sweetener industry has commissioned no fewer than 74 “independent” studies, and literally, 100 percent of them found no health risk. It’s totally fine, they say. Case closed.
Non-industry studies, however, found by a margin of 92-to-8-percent that aspartame is not only bad for you, but it might also be gratuitously unhealthy. It turns out that when a clear plastic bottle of diet soda is exposed to sunlight, the energy, it takes up breaks the aspartame into menthol, amino acids, and formaldehyde. The menthol breaks down further, but the formaldehyde sticks to your goddamn DNA and causes irreversible damage with long-term, low-level exposure. It seems to be especially harmful to the nervous system and – five will get you ten – the effect is made far worse by the presence of amino acids and menthol. Little wonder diet soda made it to the poisonous foods list. So it’s a matter which experts you trust.
When it comes to health food, you can’t get better than celery. It’s bland. It’s watery. It has a flavor that ranges between nonexistent and gross. It’s everything your nutritionist could hope for in a safe, eat-it-anytime snack. It’s also filled with poison, and the organic varieties are worse than the intensively cultivated strains.
Wild celery evolved a natural pesticide called psoralen to deter bugs, which would otherwise pierce celery’s thin skin and suck out the juices. Psoralen is a contact irritant that causes rashes in humans and can irritate the lining of the digestive tract. Regular celery is bred to have low levels of psoralen, but it has to be sprayed with synthetic pesticides and then washed before eating. Organic psoralen, on the other hand, cannot be sprayed and must naturally contain higher-than-normal amounts of the toxin. Everything should still be okay, despite that time an organic strain got so toxic it gave farmworkers dermatitis from handling it, except for one thing – celery pumps psoralen to sites that are under bug attack. That means that a punctured or bruised stalk may have up to 10 times the concentration of psoralen you’d expect, and it may actually be dangerous to eat.
If you’re on a diet, tuna makes an excellent source of protein. It’s nothing but lean meat, and it’s great with salads, cold sandwiches, and patty melts. It can even be eaten fresh and raw, as it commonly is with sushi. Plus, unlike bacon, which comes from a sensitive, intelligent mammal with a big brain, tuna is just a stupid fish that would’ve gotten eaten by a dolphin or something if you hadn’t come along first. Tuna is great.
Tuna also tends to come from the ocean, a.k.a. “the big sewer we’ve been dumping poison into for centuries,” and the tuna’s body chemistry has a unique ability to take up and store mercury from the surrounding water. This mercury may not be present in high concentrations anywhere in the ocean, but even a little bit is too much when the tuna retain it in their muscles, mainly for life. Mercury is absurdly toxic, with all sorts of delightful neurological effects, and the FDA has set some pretty strict guidelines for feeding tuna containing it to children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.
8. Cold Cuts
The cold cut is a broad category that covers anything from whole slices of USDA Prime roast beef to mystery-meat bologna that may be made out of old shoes. One thing they all have in common, however, is that they’ve been preserved with something called sodium nitrate. This preservative does its job by killing off harmful bacteria that would otherwise make the meat rot, extending its shelf life and somewhat reducing the price you pay for the lunchmeat you feed your kids.
Unfortunately, it kills bacteria by being really harmful to the same chemicals we have in our own cells. Sodium nitrate exposure damages arteries and may cause heart disease. It can also mimic certain hormones in the body and encourage several different types of cancer to form. Some lunchmeats are available that advertise “no added nitrates/nitrites,” which is a good start, but those cold cuts are almost always treated with juice extracted from celery, so we’re back to that again.
9. Anything You Barbecue
It breaks my heart to see this with poisonous foods. It’s an American tradition to gather friends and family on summer holidays and celebrate life’s blessings by throwing huge chunks of meat on the grill. Beef, pork, poultry, sausage, and several types of fish are perennial favorites for high-temperature grilling. Experienced barbecue chefs are always careful to use high heat and thoroughly cook all meat to kill off harmful bacteria and any parasites that may be lurking in the animal tissues.
That very heat, however, may be giving you cancer. Two types of organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HAs), are to blame here. These complex chemical chains form whenever lipids – such as animal fat and vegetable oils – are suddenly subjected to high heat. They’re known to be carcinogenic, and they may have other effects on the way nerves transmit signals through the body. They can be prevented from forming, but that requires pre-cooking meat over low heat before taking it outside to the grill, and if we’re honest, you’re not going to start doing that.
10. Mixed Nuts
All of the poisonous foods on this list so far have had one or two toxic ingredients that could potentially cause harm if you handle them wrong. Mixed nuts, on the other hand, are kind of like what happens after a bomb goes off in a chemical weapons plant. Mixed nuts, which doctors will still recommend as an excellent source of lean protein and a tasty snack for just about anyone who isn’t on dialysis, pack so many hostile chemicals. These chemicals have such appalling effects on the body that you get the feeling they should be marketed on a massive screen at the United Nations by a supervillain bent on world domination.
Start with peanuts. The humble, unassuming peanut is not only famous for triggering life-endangering allergic reactions in sensitive people, but it also harbors a type of fungus that produces aflatoxin, which causes liver cancer. Raw cashews contain urushiol, which is the stuff poison ivy uses to discourage you, and must be steamed before eating. Walnuts and pistachios – found in only the best-mixed nuts – toxic harbor mold just like peanuts, and almonds contain trace amounts of cyanide. Brazil nuts (which come from Peru) have all of the same problems, but they’re also full of radioactive isotopes of potassium.