The toxic nature of ackee fruit is well known in Jamaica and West Africa, where the plant grows. It is a fruit native to West Africa that was transported across the Atlantic Ocean during the time of the slave trade.
As the national fruit—and national symbol—of Jamaica, it’s an important part of the country’s national cuisine: ackee and saltfish are served there. But locals know you can’t go near an unripened or even cooked ackee. This fruit is eaten cooked as a delicious dish.
“It is well known in Jamaica that if a child eats an unripe or unopened ackee fruit, you should be ready to take them to the hospital or give them a spoonful of sugar to raise their glucose,” says Spencer.
Again, the most affected population is children, he says, particularly the malnourished, who are less likely to restore their blood sugar levels by blocking the toxins in this fruit. He hypothesizes that this may be “related to body mass,” meaning that children “should require a smaller dose.”
Well known in Africa, South America and some parts of Asia, cassava is the third most important source of calories in those regions after corn and rice, according to the World Bank, feeding more than 600 million people globally every day.
Also known as yuca, it is a tuber that is delicious fried, cooked or baked, with a sticky and starchy texture. It is also processed to turn it into a flour.
But the raw material is poisonous if not processed properly.
The plant naturally contains hydrogen cyanide, Spencer says, and is subject to strict regulations regarding its processing and production to lower the concentration of its poison.
“It feeds millions of people around the world,” says Spencer. “But if you are very poor and you don’t have time to process it, then you will get sick.”
The process involves a mixture of fermentation, peeling, drying, and cooking to detoxify the tubers. Eating the fruit raw means eating cyanide and metabolizing it, which can affect thyroid hormones and damage nerve cells in the brain related to movement, Spencer says. The tuber’s toxins can also cause sudden irreversible paralysis, according to the National Institutes of Health .
The neurological disorder that causes paralysis is known as konzo and is prevalent in certain developing regions , including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where drought, famine and conflict can make people more likely to eat the raw crop.
Spencer fears this problem could increase in other parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America where the climate is changing and droughts are increasing.
Carambola or ‘star fruit’
This fruit is native to Asia and is named after its shape.
The fruit is used as an herbal remedy for a number of ailments in various parts of the tropics, but if eaten by someone with kidney disease, it can be fatal.
Star fruit contains toxins that affect the brain and can cause neurological disorders, says the US National Kidney Foundation . These are processed and removed in people with healthy kidneys, but people with chronic kidney disease cannot naturally detoxify this fruit, so its toxins remain in the body and can potentially cause serious damage or even death.
The fatal fungus of sugarcane
Eating the sugar cane crop by itself is not harmful, but leave it too long and its impact won’t be very sweet.
Eating moldy sugar and expired sugar cane comes with a risk of poisoning courtesy of a common fungus that grows on the plant when it is stored for more than a few months.
“If a child eats that mushroom, it can cause death or lifelong neurological disease,” says Spencer. The toxin is harmful to people of all ages, although children and younger people are commonly the victims.
The fungus, called artbrinium, produces toxins that can cause vomiting, seizures, spasms and coma, according to the World Health Organization .
It should come as no surprise that one of many’s favorite foods, potatoes, can be poisonous, particularly when sprouting or green in color.
Its toxin, solanine, is found throughout the plant, but it poses a great risk in green or spoiled potatoes, according to the National Institutes of Health .
The symptoms when eating poisoned potatoes are vomiting, stomach pain, hallucinations or even paralysis.
Many species of beans contain the toxin phytohemagglutinin (known as PHA), but concentrations are particularly high in raw kidney beans. Levels are significantly reduced in cooked beans.
As few as four or five raw beans can cause symptoms, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).