Oct. 23, 2008 -- 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.
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.
For example, the common name "pea" may cause trouble. There's the edible garden pea, but there's also the sweet pea. Gardeners often plant the sweet pea, or Lathyrus odoratus, for the great scent of its flower.
According to the Cornell University Poisonous Plants Database, the sweet pea is a known toxin to horses, rodents, turkeys, sheep and humans.
Even more toxic than the sweet pea, the grass pea has been known to cause serious damage. According to the Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System, eating grass pea (Lathyrus sativa) consistently for three months can cause neurolathyrism, a syndrome characterized by muscular rigidity, weakness and paralysis of the leg muscles.
"In severe cases, victims may be reduced to crawling," the Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System says. "Young men between 20 and 30 years old are primarily affected."
Most grass pea victims live in India, where the pea is grown for flour and often eaten safely by most of the population.
Other slight name mix-ups can include the edible cherry and the toxic Jerusalem cherry, mustard and the toxic Indian mustard. We eat sage, but the plant Lantana camara, known as red sage, or yellow sage, can be poisonous.
Scientific names may not sound sexy, but Jauron thinks they save people from the sort of trouble chef Thompson created.
"You want to know exactly what you're dealing with, so typically when we deal with plants, we would provide the common name and the scientific name," Jauron said. "No other plant would have another scientific name."
But being careful with plants doesn't end with the name. Even if the gardener has the name right, the part of the plant matters.
Careful chopping -- many common fruits and vegetables in the grocery store have toxins lurking in the leaves, roots or seeds.
For example, take the humdrum potato. The entire potato plant, from the edible tuber to the top leaves, has toxic glycoalkaloids lurking in it, according to the Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System.
The tuber part of the potato is usually safe because it has far less toxin than the green parts. But toxins can concentrate in the tuber if it is exposed to sunlight and starts photosynthesis.
"A potato has buds, it's a stem, it's actually an underground stem," Jauron said. "When we see that [green color], we can still use them, we just have to cut off the green section," said Jauron.
Other green dangers can be found in the leaves of the tomato plant, the leaves of the avocado plant, the leaves of horse radish and the green parts of the tasty rhubarb.
Like the potato, the edible portion of the rhubarb contains a low level of a toxin found in the green parts. Also, like the potato, cooking the green parts doesn't help.
"Human [rhubarb] poisoning was a particular problem in World War I, when the leaves were recommended as a food source in Britain," the Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System says.
Modern day health food advice may still get people into trouble when they use traditional foods in new ways. The taro root must be cooked to remove toxins, so no raw juicing is allowed. Those who'd like to include the green parts of the buckwheat plant in their wheat grass shots should also take care.
Lamont said that the substance fagopyrin in the green part of the buckwheat plant can react with sunlight causing redness, numbing, itching, and pain on contact with cold water.
More often, toxins in our food are lying right in the center of the fruit or nut we eat such as apples, pears and almonds. Luckily, it often takes much more exposure to become sick from these foods.
What To Do
"Almost anything, if you eat it in large amounts, could be dangerous," said Charlie Nardozzi, the senior horticulturalist with the National Gardening Association. "It doesn't mean you shouldn't garden, you just need to do it with a bit of knowledge."
Nardozzi recommends that anyone who starts a garden, or who is just checking out farmer's markets, ask lots of questions.
"If you're just buying food at a farmer's market -- sometimes people are just really shy about it, they see an unusual food there and they don't really know how to eat it," Nardozzi said. "I would trust the person growing it."