27 January 2011

Crunch with caution: when veggies take a walk on the dark side

To ensure a long, healthy life without the sweat equity, trekking all the way to the Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park in St. Augustine, Florida in order to slurp up its potentially restorative spring waters sounds kind of tempting. Simply just believing that purportedly magical molecules of hydrogen and oxygen are capable of turning back the hands of time can be enough in and of itself to trigger notable physical benefits because – let’s face it -- the mind is capable of remarkable things.

Alas...for famed explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, his insatiable thirst for the waters of the St. Augustine region still failed to cure him of his impotence. If he’d only caught wind of the natural schwing-inducing powers of celery, historical accounts of his, errrm, lasting mark would be quite different today.

On a completely serious note, it seems that there’s quite literally nothing that fresh fruits and vegetables can’t do. They keep our bods in tip-top form by enabling all systems to run at optimal levels, in turn ensuring that countless ailments are kept at bay. If that weren’t enough, they’re also now being touted for their ability to endow complexions with a naturally rosy glow that enhances overall attractiveness and sex appeal.

And yet for all the good that they do, there’s a diabolical side to certain plant species that veggie lovers of the world should take note of. Please crunch cautiously….

RHUBARB: Mmmmm, so good in a pie, but oh sooooo bad (at least the leaves are) when eaten raw or cooked. Chalk the toxic effects of this herbaceous perennial up to oxalic acid and senna glycoside, both of which end up triggering convulsions, kidney issues, the occasional coma, and yes – in extreme cases, a final curtain call. While rhubarb toxins are a main ingredient in rat poison, this is one case where going green to obliterate rodents really does suck.

HORSERADISH: If you’re a wasabi devotee, the green paste that makes your taste buds sing is more than likely just dyed horseradish root, a far more affordable substitute than the real deal. Still, it has its benefits, from naturally combating gum disease to stimulating the hair follicles when applied regularly to the scalp and forming a highly effective natural gardening pesticide. Various online sources suggest that the leaves of this astringent plant should be avoided at all costs...especially if you're not a fan of Russian Roulette and would rather avoid succumbing to the effects of poisoning.

There’s so much to love about this creamy green vegan dream, but here’s a news flash for the na├»ve (and up until last week, I was also quite clueless about this tid bit) – if you love your pets and farm animals, do NOT allow them even a small nibble. Every single bit of an avocado (skin, flesh and pit) can trigger terrible toxic effects in all creatures great and small, including breathing problems, chest/heart/abdomen fluid accumulation, diarrhea, vomiting and on occasion, death.

BAMBOO SHOOTS: Any respectable Asian-inspired dish typically contains this essential, toothsome ingredient, but it’s not all rainbows and panda bears for this Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde plant. Just thank your lucky stars that the bamboo shoots you chomp on are always peeled and cooked before landing on your plate, because only then can their prussic acid – capable of poisoning a human within 120 seconds or so – be whipped into submission.

TOMATOES: Did you know that this favorite salsa staple is in the very same deadly nightshade family as potatoes?!? I know…hard to believe, but most definitely true. Whatever you do, steer clear of the green leaves of a tomato plant which contain poisonous alkaloid compounds that trigger skin irritations – and when consumed – typically cause nausea, digestive distress and cardiac depression.

LIMA BEANS: Much like the unassuming toxins found in cassava root and flax seed, raw Phaseolus lunatus contains a cyanogenic glucoside called linamarin which is suspected to trigger diabetes as well as acute toxic effects if consumed in its natural state. The seed coat is the real culprit, but have no fear bean lovers -- once limas are cooked, their cyanogen is sufficiently deactivated.

CASSAVA ROOT: A doppelganger of yams and sweet potatoes, this highly versatile starchy root thrives in poor soils amid drought conditions, making it a major food staple among developing countries. The most blatant drawback of both the tuber and its foliage, however, is the presence of cyanide, the very same compound that is notoriously toxic to humans and wildlife. By properly processing cassava -- either by thoroughly cooking and then drying it or grating, fermenting and ultimately exposing it to the sun – toxins can be removed, but it seems like a risky endeavor given the regular incidences of poisoning that continue to occur globally.

POTATOES: Remember your grandma cautioning you not to eat any green potato chips? It turns out that she wasn’t off her rocker, after all. Part of the nightshade family, unripe, green-tinged spuds and their foliage are capable of triggering inconvenient symptoms such as headaches, stomach cramps and diarrhea all the way to coma and even death thanks to their high glycoalkaloid content. Keep that veggie peeler on speed dial!

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/virgomerry