OOPS: Even Chefs Can Mix-Up Poisonous Foods

Novice chefs beware. With gourmet chefs increasingly using rare, exotic or long-forgotten ingredients in food, even experts can hurt themselves.

Last Thursday, a Japanese sushi chef died after accidentally eating the highly-poisonous liver of the fugu, or puffer fish. While many parts of the fish are tasty and safe, certain organs can be deadly.

The 34-year-old chef was licensed by the Tokyo government to prepare the fugu dish, yet mistakenly thought the liver was safe to eat, according to reporting by The Mainichi Daily News.

Europe saw several widespread hazardous gourmet mistakes earlier this year.

In late August, a popular Swedish food magazine recalled 10,000 store copies after a mistake in one of its cake recipes left four people sick, dizzy and in pain.

"There was a mistake in a recipe for apple cake. Instead of calling for two pinches of nutmeg it said 20 nutmeg nuts were needed," Matmagasinet's chief editor Ulla Cocke told Agence France-Presse.

Agence France-Presse reported that the magazine had issued leaflet warnings about the dangers of nutmeg poisoning, but recalled the magazines after four adults overdosed.

Earlier this fall, celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson Tuesday apologized for a potentially fatal mix-up during a magazine interview when he recommended wild henbane as a great addition to salads.

Thompson said henbane, but he meant fat hen. Fat hen is a weed. Henbane extract was the poison famously poured into Hamlet's father's ear, also often called nightshade.

Nutmeg, henbane and fat hen aren't the only plants that cause confusion. Many herbs have several different names, and many foods have unseen dangers.

The following pages outline just a few toxic plants that share common names with common foods, or common foods that have toxic qualities.

The Dose Makes the Poison

Seeds from fruit trees in the Prunus genus -- cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and almonds -- all produce low levels of cyanogenic glycosides that can lead to cyanide poisoning, according to William J. Lamont Jr., a professor of horticulture at Pennsylvania State University.

But not to worry, Lamont and other horticulturalists noted it would take eating several whole pits to get sick.

Large amounts of licorice, or too much licorice herbal medicine, can cause problems for people with heart conditions.

Several popular flavors can be dangerous in high doses, too. High doses of licorice can cause high blood pressure and low potassium levels, causing problems for people with heart conditions.

As the Swedish magazine knows, nutmeg, a spice usually enjoyed safely in pinches and teaspoons, can become quite dangerous in large doses.

According Lamont, nutmeg contains a substance called myristicin, a narcotic that can cause hallucinations, nausea, vomiting and sometimes circulatory collapse.

Lamont explained that it takes eating one to three whole nutmegs to affect someone – far less than the pour Swedes put in the cake.

However, novice chefs may need to pay more attention to names than to doses when it comes to food safety.

What's in a Common Name?

"Common names can sometimes be confusing," said Richard Jauron, the extension horticulturalist at Iowa State University in Ames. "When you get into these names, that makes me a little squeamish."

One plant may have several different common names. On the other hand, a single common name might be attributed to several different plants, Jauron said.

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