Food poisoning might be more common than you think. According to the WHO, about 600 million people worldwide get ill after consuming contaminated food every year. This translates to one in 10 people. Moreover, a staggering 420,000 people die of food poisoning each year.
Toxic foods are real, and you have to watch out for them. But which are those?
Let’s find out!
Common Foods That Contain Toxins
Various foods that contain potentially toxic and harmful substances may be hiding in your kitchen without you even being aware.
Let’s find out which those might be!
Mushrooms are an excellent source of protein and welcome addition to many scrumptious meals. But, as you probably already know, not all mushroom varieties are safe for human consumption. Expectedly, some wild mushrooms can be categorized as poisonous foods.
So, if you aren’t an expert in mushrooms, it’s probably best to stay clear of picking wild mushrooms for lunch on your hike through the woods, as the edible ones can easily be confused with their similar-looking poisonous counterpart.
For example, the edible Cantharellus cibarius can easily be confused with Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca, which can create stomach issues. Similarly, Boletus luridus is often confused with highly poisonous Boletus satanas, Amanita rubescens with Amanita pantherina, etc.
Toxins in this food that can cause poisoning include muscimol and muscarine. These compounds present in wild mushrooms may cause abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations, etc., and even lead to organ damage or even death.
It’s important to note that cooking doesn’t inactivate toxins from these mushrooms.
Potatoes, some of the most common tubers in the world, often turn green if exposed to direct sunlight, as this increases chlorophyll levels in them.
However, it’s not only the amount of chlorophyll that increases. Solanine levels also soar. This glycoalkaloid turns potatoes bitter and may cause nausea, diarrhea, headaches, and neurological issues when ingested.
That being said, it’s best to avoid consuming green potatoes.
The main ingredient of ketchup, everybody’s favorite condiment, can also cause food toxicity symptoms (e.g., gastrointestinal discomfort). This is because leaves, stems, and unripe fruits (to an extent) contain a glycoalkaloid relatively poisonous to humans — tomatine.
Unripe tomatoes contain another toxic alkaloid that can cause stomach discomfort called solanine.
So, make sure that your tomatoes are ripe before you toss them into your salad and try to eliminate all leaves and stems from the fruit before consumption.
Capsaicin, which gives chili peppers their spiciness, can also be toxic. This is also the active ingredient in pepper spray that can trigger airway constrictions if inhaled.
If consumed excessively, capsaicin from chili peppers can cause stomach pain, skin itchiness, and (in severe cases) even death.
So, make sure not to go overboard with this flavorful spicy vegetable.
Cashew nuts, that is, cashew fruit seeds, are foods that are poisonous when raw. Raw cashew nuts contain substances toxic to humans — anacardic acid and urushiol. Toxins like these are closely related to toxins that make poison ivy irritating.
They can produce symptoms like skin rash and gastrointestinal disturbances (e.g., bloating, etc.). So, consume only thermally processed cashews, as boiling/roasting can eliminate toxic chemicals and make cashews safe for consumption.
Peanuts are nutritious legumes and rich sources of protein, fibers, fats, and minerals.
But peanuts are also one of the most common food allergens affecting roughly 1.2% of the US population, causing various allergy symptoms from rashes to fatal anaphylaxis.
They’re also highly susceptible to contaminants, particularly aflatoxin, a potentially carcinogenic compound produced by a specific type of mold from the Aspergillus species.
This toxin is commonly associated with various food toxicity symptoms (nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain), as well as liver disease and liver cancer.
The reason why peanuts are so prone to developing aflatoxin-producing mold is that they’re grown underground, where it’s often warmly humid, which is a perfect breeding ground for molds.
But molds can also develop in storage or supermarket shelves if conditions are favorable.
Raw (Unpasteurized) Milk
Raw milk must be pasteurized to eliminate various microorganisms harmful to human health (e.g., Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Listeria, Campylobacter, etc.).
Consuming unpasteurized milk can lead to stomach discomfort and food poisoning.
Raw milk is particularly harmful to individuals with weakened immune systems (e.g., HIV/AIDS patients, transplant patients, cancer patients, diabetes patients, etc.), children under five, the elderly, and pregnant women. It’s also an excellent example of foods that are poisonous raw.
Shellfish (shrimps, lobsters, crabs, clams, mussels, etc.) are an excellent source of lean protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and various minerals.
Despite being incredibly healthy, it can also be dangerous to human health.
Namely, shellfish are prone to heavy metal (e.g., cadmium, mercury, etc.) accumulation from their environment. If they consume heavy metals, humans can’t excrete them, and the subsequent heavy metal accumulation may lead to organ damage and various health issues.
Shellfish is also one of the most common food allergens that may cause a range of allergic reactions, from hives to potentially fatal anaphylaxis.
Cassava is the third major source of carbohydrates in the tropics and an excellent source of nutrients in many cuisines around the world.
However, cassava is also one of the foods that shouldn’t be eaten raw. It contains a harmful amount of cyanogenic glycosides that can cause cyanide poisoning. That’s why cassava has to be detoxified before consumption by scraping, drying, or soaking.
Common Food Toxins
In short, food toxins are harmful compounds present in food. They’re naturally produced by plants (and other living organisms) as a natural defense against different insects, microorganisms, and predators.
But there are also other toxins (of external origin) found in food.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common substances found in food that may negatively affect your health.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical that used to be commonly found in many plastic food and beverage containers, as well as the lining of metal cans.
It also used to be one of the common food toxins, as BPA tended to easily find its way from the container into food and beverages, often contaminating bottled water, canned tomatoes, canned soup, canned pasta, etc.
Studies showed that BPA can disrupt normal hormone function by imitating estrogen and binding to estrogen receptor sites.
Additionally, studies involving pregnant animals indicated that ingesting BPA may negatively affect reproduction and increase the risk of the fetus developing breast or prostate cancer later in life.
Furthermore, there’s some scientific evidence suggesting that BPA may be associated with the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and insulin resistance.
That’s part of the reason why, nowadays, most food containers are BPA-free. Despite this, it’s best to steer clear of plastic containers and opt for storing food and drinks in stainless steel or glass ones instead.
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are also one of the common toxins in food. They’re primarily found in grilled and smoked meats (virtually all kinds — beef, chicken, fish) and various processed foods like dried fruit, crude olive pomace oil, spices, etc.
PAHs are formed by burning organic substances (e.g., coal, wood, etc.), but it also occurs when preparing food at high temperatures (e.g., grilling directly over an open flame, smoking, etc.).
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons come to being when fat from the meat gets in contact with the scorching hot cooking surface, and then they find their way into the meat. One of the PAHs’ doings is also making burnt food smell toxic.
Various studies suggest that PAHs are toxic to human health. They’ve been associated with a number of malignant conditions (e.g., breast, kidney, colon and prostate malignancy).
The best way to prevent PAH toxicity is to limit your intake of smoked and grilled meat to the bare minimum. But if you’re a huge fan of BBQ and don’t think you can give it up, there are ways to protect yourself from toxic PAHs, at least partly.
According to a study, you can reduce the amount of PAHs in meat by 48–89% by removing fat drippings from the cooking surface. Similarly, you can reduce PAHs by 41–74% by using smoke removal treatment.
Artificial Trans Fats
Unlike natural trans fats occurring in animal-based foods (e.g., beef, lamb, and dairy products), industrial trans fats can cause a serious mess in our bodies.
They’re obtained by treating unsaturated oils with hydrogen to make them solid.
Until recently, they were commonly found in processed foods like margarine, packaged snacks (e.g., microwaved popcorn), fried foods (e.g., french fries, fried chicken, doughnuts), commercial baked goods (e.g., cookies, cakes, and pies), etc.
Though trans fats may not seem like typical food toxins, they’re just as dangerous since they can cause inflammation and negatively affect your cardiovascular health. And this is exactly why the FDA banned them from use in January 2020.
Coumarin is a toxic compound found in one of the oldest and most popular spices out there — cinnamon.
Chinese cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), Saigon cinnamon (Cinnamomum loureiroi), and Indonesian cinnamon (Cinnamomum burmanni) are the main sources of this toxic compound related to a higher risk of hepatic damage and certain types of malignancy.
On the brighter side, not all cinnamon varieties contain the same amount of coumarin. For example, Ceylon Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) is the lowest in this compound. However, it’s also more expensive than other cinnamon types.
Mercury, the only metal in liquid form at normal temperatures, is another common toxin found in food. It’s present mainly in fish, one of the best animal protein sources. It usually occurs in aquatic creatures living in mercury-contaminated waters.
Swordfish and mackerel are some of the fish with the highest mercury content and, when contaminated, can be classified as one of the poisonous foods for the human race.
Mercury is a neurotoxin, and if ingested in high doses, it can lead to various health issues (from speech impairment and pins and needles to various tumors).
Infants and breastfeeding children are more susceptible to the toxic effects of mercury.
Sugar is omnipresent in food, and it isn’t something you’d automatically suspect as a food toxin.
However, like most toxic food, it can be incredibly dangerous if consumed in excess, especially if we’re talking about added sugars (e.g., sucrose, dextrose, various syrups), which are introduced to various foods during processing.
They’re mainly found in sugar-sweetened drinks (e.g., juices, sodas, etc.), desserts (e.g., ice cream), sweet snacks, candy, etc.
Added sugars are rich sources of empty calories. They have no nutritional value and only add to the calorie count, which is why they’re linked to obesity.
The excessive intake of sugars high in fructose (e.g., high-fructose sugar syrup) is also associated with a number of health issues, including type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, and even cancer.
So, it’s best to limit your intake of added sugars and resort to them only occasionally.
Refined Vegetable and Seed Oils
Though refined oils can’t be classified as toxins and don’t necessarily cause food toxicity, they contain compounds that can damage your health if consumed in large amounts.
Unlike natural oils (e.g., avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, etc.), refined oils (e.g., cottonseed oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, etc.) are heavily processed. Extraction and purification of these oils is a complicated process, which involves using various chemicals like hexane.
These highly caloric oils are a rich source of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids that can promote inflammation and, according to a study, even increase the risk of breast cancer if not combined with enough omega-3s.
Furthermore, when heated, they produce cancerogenic aldehydes (especially if you use them for deep frying).
Toxins in Baby Food
A 2021 report identified dangerous amounts of toxic metals in baby food. According to the report, the most common heavy metals in commercial baby foods include arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.
There are many reasons why this could be the case. For example, if the main ingredients (e.g., rice, fruit, vegetables, etc.) are grown in areas contaminated with heavy metals, chances are they’ll soak up the toxic materials and, consequently, bring them into baby food.
This is highly worrisome, as babies’ nervous systems are still developing and are highly susceptible to food toxins (much more than adults). Therefore, consuming even small amounts of heavy metals and other toxic materials may prove extremely harmful to babies.
For example, research links heavy metal exposure in infants with various developmental and behavioral issues (e.g., lower IQ, ADHD, autism, learning and behavior difficulties, etc.).
Luckily, the FDA is already working on eliminating the above-described toxins from baby food for good.
Some foods contain natural toxins, and others accommodate potentially harmful compounds. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be a reason for grave concern. Many toxins are easily neutralized in just a couple of simple steps.
So, what can you do to avoid toxins in food and possible poisoning?
Make sure to wash your produce carefully before consumption; make sure it’s ripe enough; adequately store your food (in glass containers rather than those made of plastic); avoid eating foods like cashews or cassava raw, and you’ll be good to go!
Additionally, you should limit your intake of processed food, get your edibles from trusted sources, and always read the labels!
Are additives in food toxic?
Most artificial food additives used to improve the texture and appearance of the food, preserve its taste, etc., are safe for consumption. Those that aren’t are generally limited or banned by the FDA.
Still, this doesn’t mean that additives are healthy, especially if consumed in excess.
Therefore, it’s best to avoid eating too many processed foods (thereby limiting your intake of additives like sodium nitrite, aspartame, sulfites, etc.) and focus on eating healthier alternatives (e.g., whole foods) instead.
Is food-grade paraffin wax toxic?
No. According to the FDA, food-grade paraffin is safe for use, or in other words, non-toxic. Even ingesting small amounts of food-grade paraffin is considered to be safe.
Food-grade paraffin is typically made of synthetic resins, palm oil derivatives, vegetable oils, etc. It’s commonly used to prolong produce’s shelf life (by helping fruit and vegetables it’s sprayed on retain moisture), give candy and cured sausages a characteristic luster and shine, etc.
It also prevents the chocolate from melting at room temperature or in your hands.
This substance is also present in culinary wax paper to make the paper slick, non-stick, and water-resistant.
Is plant food toxic?
Plant food (plant fertilizer) is commonly used to fertilize plants in our homes and promote their growth. While safe for plants, nitrate in plant food is highly toxic for humans and pets and may cause skin irritation if touched or poisoning if inhaled or ingested.
If you accidentally inhale/ingest plant food, immediately ask for medical help.
What are the most toxic foods in the world?
Some of the most toxic foods in the world include:
- Fugu fish (its intestines, ovaries, and liver contain a neurotoxin 1,200 times more toxic than cyanide — tetrodotoxin)
- Ackee fruit (unripe ackee fruit contains hypoglycin, a toxin that can lead to Jamaican vomiting sickness and, in severe cases, even coma and death).
- Hákarl (Greenland shark contains high levels of uric acid and trimethylamine oxide)
- Cassava (cassava roots and leaves may contain cyanide)
- Red kidney beans (raw/undercooked red kidney beans contain toxic phytohaemagglutinin)
However, these toxic foods are considered to be safe for consumption when prepared the right way or consumed in the right form.