Natural Toxicants in Plant-Based Food

Over 2,000 plant species are poisonous for human consumption. Plants synthesize toxins as a protective shield against natural predators, weather, microbes, and ultraviolet (UV) light. Commonly consumed wild species of berries and mushrooms contain hidden toxic compounds. The concentration and distribution of the toxin in any plant-based food vary according to the habitat and botanical family. Depending on the species, the possible toxin containing edible parts of plants include tubers, fruits, roots, stems, buds, and foliage. Phytotoxins, such as ricin initially produce toxins for protection against herbivores. Food poisoning in people happens from excess consumption of phytotoxin-containing products. Common examples of natural toxicants in plant-based food are as follows:

Cyanogenic glycosides: They form a ubiquitous natural plant toxin and are present in cherries, apricots, bitter almonds, bamboo roots, cassava, plum, and pear. Cyanogenic glycoside levels gradually decrease, during the soaking, grating, or cooking of food products. This method is well used to bring down the toxicity levels in almonds and cassava. Toxic cyanogenic glycoside will hydrolyze to form hydrogen cyanide during chewing of food and digestion. Intentional or accidental intake of cyanogenic glycosides leads to cyanide exposure. It, in turn, results in acute intoxications, neurological damage, and growth retardation.

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Solanine and Chaconine: These are toxicants produced by edible species of the family Solanaceae. They are also referred to as glycoalkaloids. Tomatoes, potato sprouts, and eggplants exhibit high levels of solanine and chaconine. French fries, well known for their taste and texture, are sources of glycoalkaloids for the younger generation. Solanine and chaconine plant toxins are immune to cooking temperature. Exposure to excess solanine consumption results in a bitter taste and burning sensation in the mouth.

Poisonous mushrooms: Cases of mushroom poisoning are often present globally. The predominant ratio of mushroom species can become toxic if they do not get processed before consumption. Muscimol and muscarine are examples of natural toxicants present in mushrooms. Amanita phalloides, a lethal mushroom, disguises itself as the edible Asian paddy straw mushrooms. Therefore, one has to consume only commercially available mushrooms and not wild mushrooms.

Natural Toxicants in Animal-Based Foods
Food toxins of animal origin are a result of metabolism and biomagnification. Finfish, crustaceans, and shellfish show traces of marine toxins. Over 90 pufferfish species contain tetrodotoxin. Tetrodotoxin is a potent marine neurotoxin that can cause death. The presence of ciguatoxin in coral reef fish results in seafood poisoning. Few other natural toxicants present in animal-based products include the following:

Algal toxins: Mussels, scallops, and oysters often contain a build-up of algal toxins. Shellfish contaminated with algal toxins leads to paralytic shellfish poisoning.

Ciguatera toxins: Larger fish of warm ocean waters often get contaminated with ciguatera toxins. Consumption of kingfish, trout, barracuda, and Spanish mackerel exhibits unusual food poisoning from ciguatera toxin. Predator fishes with ciguatera show no taste or smell.

Toxic Effects and Food Poisoning
Eating shellfish with high content of algal toxins leads to diarrhea, vomiting, paralysis, and vertigo. A variety of food products, such as spices, nuts, dried fruits, and cereals contain mycotoxins. Food-borne mycotoxin, a specific mold species, is stable enough to survive in cooking temperatures. It can cause long-term health disorders, such as immunodeficiency and cancer. Reasonable food processing precautions are practiced to avoid food poisoning from natural toxicants. Appropriate cooking methods and food processing may bring down the degree of toxicity. The body can detoxify trace levels of food toxins to an extent. Symptoms of food poisoning often get misdiagnosed as allergic reactions. The side effects from natural food toxins include palpation, asthma, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, constipation, intense thirst, itching, nausea, and headache.

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