Surveying the whole scope of human history vis-à-vis food, a couple of themes emerge. One is that humans like their food to taste good. Another is that they like it to not kill them. These two qualities often cohere in the same foodstuff—apples, for instance, taste great, and are not to my knowledge toxic—but inevitably the tastes-good/won’t-kill-you ratio’s sometimes less than ideal. For some foods, this is a selling point—fugu, say, the poisonous fish you need a certificate to properly prepare. For others, lethality’s just an unfortunate byproduct—as with the alloy in early tin cans, which sometimes gave people lead poisoning.
For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of food historians and anthropologists to nominate their candidates for the all-time most dangerous food. There was one sticky pattern, but mostly, their takes varied wildly; collectively they cover pretty much all of the non-fruit/vegetable parts of the food pyramid. If you like eating, and also enjoy being alive, you might want to take their opinions to heart.
Associate Professor, Anthropology, University of Central Florida
Durian, aka “the king of fruits,” remains one of the most controversial foods presently consumed in Southeast Asia, and increasingly around the world—not just for its high sulphur content and strong malodour (it’s banned from many hotels, airlines, and other public places, and sometimes referred to as the “blue cheese of fruits”) but also for the dangers it poses to those who eat, cultivate, or come in close proximity to it. The fruit’s hard spikey exterior can inflict real bodily harm and even death on those unfortunate enough to get hit by durian falling from high tree branches. It has even been used as a makeshift weapon not unlike a spiked medieval bludgeon in some crimes of passion.
Durian’s high sulphur content makes it particularly dangerous when overindulged or consumed in combination with alcohol, coffee, or caffeinated soft drinks, especially for those with preexisting medical conditions like heart conditions or high blood pressure. Despite or perhaps because of such dangers, durian attracts a rabid fan base of aficionados who revel in its distinct taste and gustatory appeal.
“Durian’s high sulphur content makes it particularly dangerous when overindulged or consumed in combination with alcohol, coffee, or caffeinated soft drinks.”
Director and Founder of the Center for Food and Culture (in the US)
I would say the most dangerous food is mushrooms that look like ones known to be safe to eat but are not. The Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) looks like varieties that are safe, but is highly toxic, oftentimes has a delayed reaction, and attacks the liver. Even a small bite can be fatal. Unfortunately, they’re also said to be very tasty, and to smell delicious.
Joyce E. Chaplin
Professor, History, Harvard University and the author of Food in Time and Place, among other books
I’d point an accusing finger at domesticated livestock. From those animals, people have been catching serious and sometimes fatal diseases for a long, long time. Domestic fowl and swine, for example, continue to be reservoirs of influenza. Wild animal populations are disease reservoirs too, but domesticated poultry and swine are significant in the incubation and transmission of flu viruses. This has serious consequences. The CDC reports that, in 2017-2018, 80,000 people in the United States died of flu. This was a new record, though even in other years, flu mortality typically exceeds deaths from all foodborne illnesses combined; annual flu mortality is usually 30,000, while deaths from various kinds of food poisoning are usually around 3,000. It’s kind of a high price for our eating pork and chicken.
If there’s a really close connection between food and death, of course, it’s the problem of not having enough food. Malnutrition and starvation have, historically, been major killers, above and beyond the dangers of eating specific kinds of food.
“I am more interested in the ‘danger of beef’ on a historical, planetary scale. More specifically, how beef threatens to destroy the very existence of human civilisation.”
Chair, Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, New York University
Two mundane things we all drink regularly: soda and alcohol. If you take national population statistics, and calculate real risks (not imagined ones), there is no way to avoid the conclusion that those two are the real culprits—responsible for the death, disease and dismemberment of millions of people across the world.
Program Director and Associate Professor of Food Studies and Director of the Center for Regional Agriculture, Food and Transformation at Chatham University
I’m going to go with a big category—fungus, or fungi—because it appears in many foods, and is also its own category of food, which appears historically all across human civilisation.
We know that human societies have always found ways to preserve food, or to make inedible things edible. Sometimes this involves cooking, but it’s mostly about preserving food. Curing meats, brining vegetables, fermenting things to create alcoholic beverages—these are all ways that we have of preserving food well past its harvest. Most of these processes involve introducing microorganisms into the food to change it (think about cheese!)—and yeasts and moulds are the two main types of fungi that are used to preserve food to prevent the growth of certain bacteria that could ruin it.
That said, they are also two of the major ways that foods can spoil. Consider that if you’re trying to preserve food with this approach, a misstep could render it extremely dangerous to eat. People have to figure out which fungal growths add flavor to food and which ones are toxic. A great example of this would be corn fungus or corn smut. In indigenous and Latin American cultures, it’s a delicacy. In the industrial west, there’s tonnes of effort used to get it off corn.
The reason I also think about fungi is because mushrooms are a universal food, often foraged but sometimes cultivated, and figuring out which types of mushrooms are safe and which ones are dangerous is extremely risky business. I suspect there are not a significant contemporary number of deaths from poison mushrooms, but I can guarantee you that historically, the search for edible mushrooms has lead people down a dangerous path.
PhD Candidate, Anthropology, the University of Oklahoma
Beef is the most dangerous food of all time.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s nonsense! I just ate a hamburger this afternoon, and I’m still alive!!”
Hear me out. I’m not talking about how excessive red meat consumption is linked to an increased risk of developing coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes. Those diseases could definitely kill a person (slowly and painfully), but I am more interested in the “danger of beef” on a historical, planetary scale. More specifically, how beef threatens to destroy the very existence of human civilisation.
Beef production is one of the most significant contributors to global, man-made greenhouse gas emission. According to a recent UK government report, the production of 1kg beef will generate roughly 32.3kg CO2. On average, Americans ate 25.8548 kg of beef per capita per year, which means every American produces 835.1104 kg of CO2 per capita per year. By comparison, the average person in China eats about 6kg per capita per year. If they increased their beef consumption to the same level of their American counterparts, they would produce 641.31 kg more beef-related CO2 per capita per year. Given the large population of China, there would be roughly 900 million tons of beef-related CO2 in our atmosphere, equal to almost 2.4% of the total global man-made CO2 emission.
And that’s just China. If the global beef per capita consumption rises to the same level of America’s, the global beef-related CO2 emission would be around 580.108 kg per capita/per year, which means about 4.4 billion beef-related CO2 would be emitted to the atmosphere (11% of the total man-made Co2 emission)!
Given the global-scaled apocalyptic consequence (flood, heat, hurricane, famine) of global warming, and the direct correlation between beef consumption and CO2 emission, it is not insane to say that beef could be the most dangerous food of all time.
“Relax. Although there are poisonous plants and animals out there, although your kitchen and refrigerator shelves probably harbour foods that would kill you if eaten in sufficient quantity, humans have done an amazing job of making safe food.”
Senior Visiting Research Fellow, Institute for Historical Research, University of Texas at Austin and author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History
Relax. Although there are poisonous plants and animals out there, although your kitchen and refrigerator shelves probably harbour foods that would kill you if eaten in sufficient quantity, humans have done an amazing job of making safe food.
Those last three words “making safe food” are important. Although current food rhetoric focuses on the fresh and the natural, the overwhelming proportion of our calories come from food that we have made. That’s because eating food that has not been transformed from its natural state is dangerous. “What eats is eaten” said the unknown authors of the sacred Indian texts, the Upanishads, in the 6th century BC. To survive and evolve, all living creatures developed defences against being eaten: teeth and claws, the ability to run away, tough, inedible coverings, or naturally-occurring poisons. The latter occur in the wild ancestors of some of the most important human foods. Wild potatoes contained glycoalkaloids which caused vomiting and diarrhoea. Acorns, an important food for early and indigenous people in the Americas, Europe and Asia, are loaded with tannins. Cassava, the third largest food crop in the tropics after rice and maize, has one of the most important crops in the tropical world, can release cyanide when ingested (as can the seeds of apples and apricots as well as bitter almonds). And all wild foods might be tainted with bird droppings, animal faeces and other dangerous things.
A whole repertoire of ways of detoxifying plants were developed. The peoples of the high Andes carefully selected and bred potatoes to reduce the level of poisons. Native Americans used clay and water to bind and leach the tannins in acorns. The indigenous peoples of tropical America discovered that cooking and grating cassava roots before eating them rendered them safe. All these processes—breeding, treatment with chemicals, grating and other mechanical changes, fermentation, and the use of heat—fell under the heading of cooking, one of the most important technological achievements of humankind. Everywhere peoples thought that the more a food was cooked, the better it was to eat. Until recently. We have been so successful at rendering foods safe that now we have the luxury of choosing to eat raw, uncooked foods. Is it any surprise that so many of the food warnings today stress cooking your hamburger and watching out for the seemingly innocent lettuce?
Professor and Deputy Head of History at the University of Warwick, whose research focuses on the food and cultural history of Spanish America and early modern Europe
At present sugar is public enemy number one, implicated in the global epidemic of diabetes and the extraordinary increase in obesity. The World Health Organization reports that since 1980 the percentage of adults with diabetes has doubled; there are now over 422 million people with the condition. Conditions associated with obesity, in turn, now carry more people to the grave then do those linked to being underweight. Worldwide, thirty-nine per cent of adults qualify as overweight, three times the number in 1975. A high-sugar diet is frequently blamed for this worrying situation. Sugar-sweetened beverages, for instance, have been linked directly to the increase in type 2 diabetes, and also to obesity, itself one of the main risk factors for type 2 diabetes. Globally, per capita sugar consumption has increased by over 50% in the last fifty years.
In addition to destroying lives, sugar production destroyed the land. The dry landscapes of the former sugar islands of the Caribbean were created by the deforestation that was the almost inevitable result of commercial sugar cultivation. By 1600 the Atlantic island of São Tomé had lost its forests to sugar. By 1700 the woodland that sustained Barbados were gone. Half a century later the trees that covered two-thirds of Antigua had followed suit. Soil fertility plummeted, erosion exacerbated the decline, and as soil washed into river systems, waterways silted up. ‘Sugar crushed an earlier landscape as well as hundreds of thousands of lives,’ as William Beinart and Lotte Hughes put it. And making sugar continues to be dangerous work.
So sugar is bad for us, bad for the environment, and bad for the people who grow it.
Profesor, History, University of the Pacific, and the author or editor of 25 books on food, including Eating Right in the Renaissance and Food in Early Modern Europe
For most of our evolutionary history, [sugar] was hard to come by. But in the last five centuries we’ve begun to eat much more of it than our bodies need or can process. At the same time, we’ve removed many of the things that would promote our gut microbiome (such as fibre), and began to use antibiotics that further reduce our intestinal bacteria. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, all manner of infirmities result from over consumption of sugar. When so many beneficial calories get replaced by sugar, they are metabolised in ways that our bodies are simply not equipped to deal with.
“In the last five centuries we’ve begun to eat much more of it than our bodies need or can process.”
Professor, History, Yale University
It is in the nature of sugar that it is consumed in excessive quantities if enough is available. When Elizabeth I ruled England in the fifteenth century, the average person in her realm ate little more than a pound of sugar a year—it was a luxury product. Presently, the average annual consumption is eighty pounds. In the US, it’s more than 125 pounds.
Sugar became cheap in Europe and in the United States by the nineteenth century. The most dangerous aspect of sugar is the history of how it came to be so plentiful as to become a staple, an economic change made possible by enslaving Africans to work sugar plantations in the New World. The centre of sugar cultivation and refining was the West Indies. The decreasing price was more than made up by an increased and inexpensive supply. More money is made from basic commodities like oil than elite products like truffles. Sugar transformed the world in ways that continue to reverberate.
Dean and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, New Mexico State University
To my mind, the most dangerous food is sugar. The sugar industry is responsible for the enslavement of Africans by the millions, for the displacement of Native Americans from cultivable lands, for the rise of the industrial age and formation of class structures, as sugar kept factory workers satiated—and of course today we are well aware of the global health consequences of over consumption of sugar. While it might not be as jazzy as a potentially toxic yet delicious fish, sugar is number one in my book.
Featured image: Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)