Though supermarkets spare us the risk of foraging for our meals in the wild, most still carry foods that can cause serious illness or even death when improperly prepared. Here are both the common staples and rare delicacies from around the world that will pose a threat of poisoning if you’re not careful.
All chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees at minimum before eating. Otherwise, the poultry may serve as a carrier for all sorts of bacteria that cause food poisoning, including salmonella and campylobacter. The practice of eating raw chicken, or torisashi, is nonetheless common in Japan and at some stateside sushi restaurants.
For safest results, pork should be cooked to at least medium, as raw pork can be infected with a worm parasite called trichinella spiralis, which pigs get from eating other meat. This has become less common in the U.S. thanks to modernized farming practices, so it is possible to try undercooked or raw pork provided you can confirm the source feeds their pigs a vegetarian diet.
Raw eggs were an essential part of a boxer’s diet in “Rocky,” but consuming them in real life can be dangerous. About one in every 30,000 raw eggs are infected with salmonella bacteria, so food poisoning is possible but generally quite rare.
Though raw honey has far more nutritional and immune-boosting value than its pasteurized counterpart, it should never be consumed by children under the age of one, as it can lead to infant botulism. Most bottles of honey at the supermarket are pasteurized for this reason.
Often regarded as an invasive weed, stinging nettles contain formic acids that cause a burning sensation when touched. Get rid of these acids as well as the prickly spines by blanching the nettles in saltwater. The cooked leaves can be used to make tea or as a spinach substitute, and are rich in protein, vitamins, iron, potassium, and calcium.
Rhubarb stalks are vibrant, tart, and taste great when cooked with sugar into a homemade pie or cobbler. Their leaves, however, contain high levels of oxalic acid, a corrosive that can lead to kidney failure and even death. Nonetheless, the toxic leaves are sometimes treated to remove the oxalic acid and used in flavoring extracts.
Fugu, or pufferfish, is so difficult to prepare safely that Japanese law dictates only chefs with three or more years of rigorous training may do so. The fish contains in its inner organs lethal amounts of the poisonous tetrodotoxin, for which there is no known antidote. In more recent years, farmers have found some success in breeding poison-free pufferfish by isolating them from tetrodotoxin-laden food sources.
The sprouts and stems (commonly known as eyes) that grow on potatoes as they age contain glycoalkaloids that can cause cramping, diarrhea, coma, and death when consumed in large quantities. They can also be present in the flesh of potatoes, but you can guard against this by storing them properly and throwing out any that develop a greenish tinge.
Cultured from South Africa to northern Japan, blood clams live in low-oxygen environments and filter up to 40 liters of seawater per day, making them more likely to absorb harmful bacteria and viruses including hepatitis, typhoid, and dysentery. The common Chinese preparation of boiling the clams very briefly leaves these viruses intact. Unsurprisingly, they were banned in Shanghai following a hepatitis A outbreak in 1988.
Silver Stripe Blaasop
The liver, skin, and reproductive organs of silver stripe blaasop all contain a poisonous substance known to cause respiratory failure and fatal muscle paralysis in humans. Despite this, it’s been a favorite for centuries in some parts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Giant Namibian bullfrogs are a delicacy throughout much of Africa, but aficionados know to wait until after the third rain of spring, when the frogs start croaking and breeding, to consume them. Otherwise, the frog’s skin and organs can contain harmful toxins that lead to kidney failure and often death.
A common ingredient in pies and jams, globular black elderberries grow from a tree whose other components — including its bark, leaves, roots, and buds — contain bitter alkaloids that produce hydrocyanic acid. To avoid vomiting and other gastrointestinal upsets, eat only the berries while saving the flowers for herbal teas and the leaves for external ointments.
Castor oil is often used in food additives and flavorings as well as in soaps, lubricants, laxatives, paints, plastics, and perfume. Castor seeds contain the toxic enzyme ricin, which is deactivated by heat during the oil extraction process but is a powerful poison if left unheated. Castor oil shouldn’t be consumed by pregnant women, as it can cause premature contractions.
San-Nakji (Live Octopus)
This Korean raw dish is made with long arm octopus, served alive and whole or chopped into smaller pieces that still wriggle posthumously. Either way, the dish poses a serious choking hazard since the octopuses’ tentacles can still use suction cups to attach themselves to one’s mouth or throat.
Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica, commonly used like a vegetable to create a scrambled egg-like side dish. Only the yellow parts of the strange-looking specimen should be consumed, as eating the red portions — or any of the fruit when it’s not yet ripe — can result in hypoglycemia and seizures, collectively called Jamaican vomiting sickness.
Nutmeg may add a nice kick to egg nog or gingerbread, but ingesting just two to three teaspoons of the spice can prove fatal. Some eat or smoke large quantities of the ground seed as a cheap hallucinogen, though its effects sound decidedly unpleasant, triggering symptoms such as nausea, burning abdomen pain, and a sense of impending dread.
Tuna tends to be high in mercury and shouldn’t be consumed too often. That means no more than once a week for most adults, and no more than three 3-ounce portions a month for children under six, depending on the type of tuna. Ingesting too much mercury can cause serious damage to the heart, kidney, and lungs.
A common addition to Asian soups and noodle dishes, bamboo shoots are the only part of the plant that’s edible to humans, and even these must be boiled and have their fibrous exteriors cut away before consumption. The raw shoots contain toxins that produce cyanide in the body.
As with ackee, eating lychee fruit before it’s fully ripe can be toxic and sometimes fatal, prompting fever and convulsions especially on an empty stomach. This is due to the toxins of unripe green lychee blocking the body’s production of sugar, leading to hypoglycemia and changes in brain functioning.
Asparagus spears are fine, if not exactly palatable, to eat raw, but the plant itself also produces bright red berries that are toxic to humans. This is only likely to be a problem for people who grow their own asparagus.
A major source of carbohydrates throughout the tropics, the root vegetable cassava must be soaked for up to 24 hours and cooked before eating. When raw, cassava contain chemicals that metabolize to create cyanide, which reaches especially dangerous levels in bitter cassava grown during droughts, leading to death or development of a goiter from long-term exposure.
The raw cashews found in the supermarket are not actually raw, but have been heat-treated to remove a hazardous chemical called urushiol, also found in poison ivy. Consuming truly raw cashews straight from the tree can cause skin rashes and extreme, sometimes fatal, allergic reactions.
All almonds contain some level of cyanide, but the sweet almonds found in your average grocery store don’t have enough to be dangerous. Bitter almonds found in the wild, on the other hand, can contain as much as 50 times more cyanide, so eating even a handful can lead to nausea, headache, rapid heart rate, slowed heart rate, respiratory failure, and death.
Red Scorpion Cod
Though red scorpion cod is renowned for its rich, flaky, crab-like flavor, many fishermen in its native South Pacific refuse to reel it in. That’s because the blotchy, mud-colored creature has perilously spiky fins and deploys venom through 12 to 13 spines on its body. A sting from one is said to cause excruciating pain lasting as long as half a day.
Inky Cap Mushrooms
Some mushrooms found in the wild are poisonous or even fatal when eaten. Inky caps are not usually one of them, however. Mild in flavor, inky caps are only dangerous when consumed with alcohol (even within several hours), leading to a short-lived condition called disulfiram syndrome. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, malaise, and tingling in the limbs. Severity is proportional to the amount of alcohol consumed.
Starfruit can be used as an herbal remedy and is generally harmless, except for people with kidney disease. Healthy kidneys usually process and remove the toxins present in starfruit, but those with chronic kidney problems are susceptible to neurological problems including confusion, seizures, and sometimes death.
Stonefishes are among the most venomous sea creatures known to man, but as usual, that hasn’t stopped us from eating it. Considered a delicacy through East Asia, the fish can be cooked to break down its protein-based venom, or served as raw sushi with its dorsal fins, the main source of venom, removed.
While most dairy sold in the US is made from pasteurized milk, raw milk products have become more common in recent years despite their increased risk of contamination. Between 1993 and 2006, more than 1,500 Americans became sick from consuming raw milk or cheese, which are more likely than pasteurized products to harbor dangerous bacteria like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria.
Many movies depict monkey brains as a disturbing fixture of exotic cuisines, but the controversial dish is now illegal in China and exceptionally rare in general. This may be because consuming nervous system tissue leads to transmission of fatal encephalopathies such as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Brazil nuts themselves are a good source of dietary fibers, minerals, and fatty acids, but their shells have been found to contain high levels of aflatoxin, one of the world’s most dangerous carcinogens, causing liver cancer and stunted growth in children. For this reason, the European Union imposed strict regulations on the importation of Brazil nuts in-shell.
Also known as “the rotting cheese,” Casu Marzu is an age-old Sardinian delicacy made from rotten sheep’s milk fermented with live fly larvae, or maggots. These can sometimes survive in the human intestine, leading to parasitic infestations as well as vomiting and bloody diarrhea. The cheese has been outlawed in the European Union, though some Sardinians still make it.
Raw Red Kidney Beans
Red kidney beans taste bitter when consumed straight off the vine, and worse, they contain a toxin called phytohaemagglutinin, also called kidney bean lectin. Symptoms of lectin poisoning are generally short-lived but can include severe nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Soaking the beans in water for five hours or more reduces the toxin to levels your body can manage.
Raw lima beans contain their own toxin called limarin, which is fatal in large doses and causes stomach aches in small ones. The toxin is easily neutralized by boiling the beans for 15 minutes, as is done for all canned varieties.
Also called tree spinach, chaya is a leafy vegetable native to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and common in Central American cuisine. The pronged leaves should be immersed and simmered in oil before eating, to remove their stinging hairs and inactivate its toxic, cyanide-producing compounds. Cooked chaya boasts exceptional levels of calcium, iron, and protein, higher than any other land-based vegetable.
Fruit Seeds and Pits
The seeds and pits from many of the most common fruits — including apples, peaches, pears, mangos, cherries, and apricots — contain a chemical called amygdalin that can turn into cyanide. Thankfully, you’d have to consume an uncommonly large quantity to see any adverse reaction.