Deadly Dinner: Potentially Poisonous Crops

To help avoid having a deadly dinner, here is a list of a few food crops that can become poisonous under the right circumstances.

| Winter 2014-15

What do corn, potatoes, beans, and cashews have in common? They can all be poisonous under the right circumstances. Some of the world’s most important food crops contain toxic compounds that require them to be cooked or combined with other foods to make them safe. Some, like the grass pea, have earned a world-wide reputation for turning a famine into an even more tragic catastrophe.

Grass Pea

Lathyrus sativus

Also called chickling vetch, this pea has been a dietary staple in the Mediterranean, Africa, India, and parts of Asia for centuries. Like most legumes, it is an excellent source of protein, but it has one serious drawback: it contains a neurotoxin called beta-N-oxalyl-diaminopropionic acid, or beta-ODAP. The first symptom of beta-ODAP poisoning, or lathyrism, is a weakening of the legs. Eventually, the toxin kills nerve cells and victims become paralyzed from the waist down. Without treatment, they will die.

How has this pea remained such a popular ingredient in flours, porridges, and stews? If they are soaked for a long time in water or fermented in breads or pancakes, they pose little risk. Grass peas are one of the few food crops that can survive a serious drought. People are then left with little else to eat — and not enough water to soak the peas.

Hippocrates warned that people who “ate peas continuously became impotent in the legs.” Today one of the great tragedies of famines in places like Ethiopia and Afghanistan is that the high-protein pea is typically reserved for men to give them strength so that they can feed their families. Instead, it has the opposite effect, reducing them to crawling on their knees (and as one report noted, “Wheelchairs aren’t an option for most lathyrism sufferers, as they tend to live in dirt-floor huts”). Even if the drought receded and they stopped eating the peas, they might still be disabled for life.

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