Poisonous Food | Part 2

With the birds I’ll share this lonely view…

There is a fruit out there which causes us physical pain when we eat it. It makes our noses run, our eyes water, our tongues burn and in extreme cases it can kill us. But this is okay. We like this fruit. We voluntarily add bits of this fruit to our food to make it taste better. We sit at a Mexican fiesta laughing around a table that has bowls of food containing this fruit and when we eat it, we ask for more. More than two billion people across the world enjoy this fruit daily. What is wrong with us?

Chillies are one of the more obvious ones since they doesn’t even try to disguise themselves with sweetness like apples or awesomeness like potatoes. They contain a  chemical called capsaicin, which is at its highest levels not in the seeds as is commonly believed, but in the flesh that houses the seeds (known as the placenta).


© Vibhuti Patel

Capsaicin is a neurotoxin, it is the thing that makes chillies burn and activate the pain receptors on our tongues. In fact, capsaicin is so strong that it is often used as a paint stripper. Eek.

So I go back to the question – what is wrong with us? Are we masochistic?

In a way, yes. In a scientific study, subjects were given a bunch of increasingly hot chillies, up to the point where they physically couldn’t eat any hotter. When asked what level of heat they liked the best, the subjects consistently chose the highest level they were able to stand. i.e. the level that they had to stop at, right below the level of unbearable pain. I say it again, what is wrong with us?!

There are a couple of theories behind why we enjoy chillies so much.

– Our body is known to release endorphins (read: the brain’s natural  morphine) in response to the burn we feel when eating chilli (these are the same hormones that are released during orgasm). In other words, our brains associate the burn of chilli with the highest state of earthly pleasure. Nice.

– Other scientists argue that we like chilli because they have some positive effects. They are thought to help lower blood pressure, and increase microbial resistance.

It is strange that humans appreciate a bunch of different flavours that are inherently distasteful, like sourness and bitterness. We’re also the only animals who enjoy and actively seek out activities that we should be trying to avoid evolutionarily. Roller-coasters, skydiving, horror movies. It may be because we have an awareness that, despite the nature of these, there’s no real danger. But who knows.


Have nuts and be nuts!

Cashew nuts, with pistachio nuts, are one of my favourite nuts. Except they’re not, because they’re not nuts. They’re actually seeds, growing inside a shell-like structure that’s attached to the cashew apple. But that’s not the point. Have you ever wondered why you can’t buy cashew nuts in the shell, when with almost every other nut you can?

Probably not, because normal people don’t generally think about these things. But I did, so I looked it up and surprise! The shell is actually toxic. Dun dun dun!

Cashews belong to the same family as mangoes, pistachios and poison ivy (…are your alarm bells ringing yet?). In fact, the shells of the cashew contain a chemical known as urushiolwhich is the very thing in poison ivy that causes the pain and associated rash.

Urushiol is stored in the leaves of the cashew plant, as well as in the  lining around the seed and the shell. Nuts must be steamed to release the chemical, in order to make it safe to eat. This is an exceptionally labourious ordeal, and there is actually a high incidence of skin rashes and irritation among people who work in their harvesting or processing. Furthermore, these people are known to develop greater allergies to cashew shells over time, which can lead to potentially fatal reactions when they come into contact with urushiol.

Another important reminder of immense cost and effort that goes into the same food we simply pluck off supermarket shelves.

**Somewhat disturbing bonus side note:

Congratulations for reading this far! I’m now going to reward you in the grossest way possible.

Castoreum is a yellowish substance that is secreted from the anal glands of North American and European beavers. Nice.

Don’t worry though, it doesn’t smell like anything else that comes from that area. In fact, it has a distinct musky vanilla scent. Do you see where I’m going here people?

Yes, beaver anal secretions are used to substitute for the vanilla flavour that comes from expensive, labour-intensive vanilla beans.


© Vibhuti Patel


Featured image is sourced from http://wallpapers111.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Red-Chilli-HD-Wallpapers1.jpeg


3 responses to “Poisonous Food | Part 2

  1. Reblogged this on The Candid Scientist and commented:
    For those who like exploring the oddities of life, VB’s blog “Shudder” provides great content about science that’s off the beaten path. In this article, VB discusses why we love the burn of hot sauce, why you never see cashew nut shells in the grocery store, and everything you didn’t want to know about ice cream.

    Liked by 1 person

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