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The foods on this list encompass a few wild finds, as well as things you may have in your fridge right now. 

Kimberly Holland
February 05, 2019

Your grocery store is full of healthy foods that provide you with life-sustaining nutrients. It's also filled with foods that could be harmful to you. When you think of what a dangerous food might be, you may consider obscure foods like pufferfish (yes, that’s on the list), but do you think about hot dogs, cheese, or even your basic chicken breast? Likely not. However, as it turns out, some of the most dangerous foods in the world seem quite innocuous—and they may be in your fridge right now.

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Hot dogs

We’re not talking about the potentially questionable concoction of meats and fillers that are used to make most mainstream hot dogs. No, the real danger with these iconic picnic foods comes as a choking hazard.

Johns Hopkins Medicine points out that hot dogs are the leading cause of choking-related injuries in children under three years of age. Hot dogs account for about 17 percent of all choking cases. (That’s followed by hard candy, grapes, and nuts.)

The shape of hot dog pieces, as well as the texture of the meat are a double whammy for choking. Quite simply, they’re hard to get down or out if you start to choke on them. Parents worried about this hazard are encouraged to chop the hot dogs into very fine pieces for their youngest kids.

Meat

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 75 percent of Escherichia coli (E. coli) poisoning incidents came from two food groups: vegetable row crops (like leafy greens) and beef. The data suggests they’re equally dangerous, and each year more than 2,000 people are hospitalized because of an E. coli infection. Plus, beef, as well as meats like chicken and pork, are among the leading contributors to Salmonella illnesses, too, the CDC says.

Meats can be dangerous because bacteria from the animals’ guts can find their way to the meat, contaminating it before it even gets to your home. Since you can’t see the bacteria, you may eat it without knowing what’s coming. The best way to avoid this type of foodborne illness is with a heat treatment (i.e. cooking it). The current recommendation is 160°F for ground beef and 145°F for steaks and roasts.

Potatoes

Green potatoes aren’t a sign of an unripe spud. They’re a sign you may have a toxic food on your hands.

The longer potatoes sit in light and warm temperatures, the more likely they are to start producing a chemical called solanine. The green spot, however, is nature’s way of warning you the chemical may be present because along with solanine, potatoes that are aging also produce chlorophyll, which gives potatoes the grassy hue.

In certain doses, this chemical can be toxic, leading to symptoms like headaches, nausea, and even some neurological problems. Be sure to cut off any sprouts on the potatoes and remove any of the green spots before you cut it. If the whole potato is green, it belongs in the trash.

Pufferfish

This infamous balloon-shaped fish is the second most poisonous vertebrate in the world. (The top spot goes to the golden poison frog.) One pufferfish, or fugu as they’re called in Japan, has enough toxins to kill 30 adult humans and is 1200 times more deadly than cyanide. Did we mention there is no antidote?

That doesn’t seem to keep people from wanting to live life on the potentially poisonous edge, however. In Japan, chefs can undergo rigorous training and be taught how to properly handle and cook pufferfish. (Fugu is banned in the U.S.) In some high-end restaurants, the fish sells for hundreds of dollars.

Elderberries

If you ever dip your toes in the homeopathy world, you’re likely to see elderberries bounced about as a cure for what ails you, specifically colds and the flu. These processed products might lead you to believe the brilliantly violet orbs are safe for consumption, but not so fast: raw elderberries, as well as the bark and leaves, are toxic. They contain a compound that can cause nausea and vomiting, cramps, dizziness, numbness, and weakness, the CDC reports. They’re also toxic to livestock and can lead to death.

Elderberries are not grown commercially in the U.S., so don’t worry about finding them in your grocery store. You may find cooked versions, which can be safely used in everything from pies and compotes to syrups and jams. Just be vigilant for the raw variety in the wild or even in alternative treatments where they’re not processed and cooked.

Wild mushrooms

Speaking of foraged foods, you’ve likely known from a young age that you can’t trust the mushrooms growing in your front yard—or in any yard for that matter. That’s because wild mushrooms can be toxic.

Indeed, the CDC reports poisonings from death cap mushrooms (or Amanita phalloides) are increasing as more of the toxic mushrooms are growing. Worldwide, this mushroom is responsible for 90 percent of mushroom-related deaths.

Of course, not all wild mushrooms are toxic or deadly. If you find yourself with a trained forager or experienced mycologist (that’s a person who studies mushrooms), you may be able to harvest quite a bounty. At the farmers’ market, you should verify the training of the people selling the fungi before you buy.

Rhubarb

When spring starts to peek around the corner of winter’s cold temperatures, you may find yourself itching to have your first strawberry-rhubarb pie of the season. And we certainly aren’t here to rain on that parade, but we do want to warn you to be wary of the rhubarb leaves. 

Rhubarb leaves contain a compound called oxalic acid. High amounts of oxalic acid can be poisonous, with symptoms like trouble breathing, diarrhea, even kidney failure. In some cases, oxalic acid overdose can even be deadly.

Rhubarb leaves are often discarded immediately, leaving only the stalks for recipes. If you do find these greens particularly flavorful for some reason, just know that it takes quite a bit to reach toxic levels. A toxic dose would be about 10 pounds of rhubarb leaves.

Tuna

Big fish like tuna live long lives in the world’s oceans. Unfortunately, the world’s oceans are seeing rising mercury levels, which means the fish absorb more of the metal into their flesh. If you eat a lot of tuna (or any big fish that’s especially susceptible to mercury absorption), you could put yourself at risk for mercury toxicity.

Symptoms include neurological issues like depression and irritability. Mercury levels can rise over time, which can lead to to mercury poisoning, with symptoms like lack of coordination, hearing problems, and trouble walking.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid delicious tuna. The fish is full of heart-healthy fats and a great source of lean protein. Just be sure to monitor your weekly intake and opt for smaller fish from time to time to keep possible mercury consumption low.

Kidney beans

These cinnamon-colored beans are delicious in everything from soups to bean salads, but if you eat them raw or undercooked, they could poison you. Raw kidney beans contain a toxic protein called phytohaemagglutinin (PHA). Even a small handful of undercooked kidney beans could lead to symptoms like vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.

When kidney beans are cooked (not just soaked in water to soften), the levels of PHA fall precipitously. After soaking, be sure to change the water, then boil them until soft. 

Starfruit

The unique yellow-green fruit is a great topper for patriotic desserts or classroom treats, but for some people, starfruit can be dangerous, even deadly.

These fruits contain a toxin called caramboxin. For people who have kidney disease, this toxin can build up in the body, eventually reaching the brain and causing symptoms like vomiting, weakness, and confusion. At sufficient doses, it can even cause seizures, coma, even death.

If you don’t have any kidney issues, you’re in the clear. Enjoy your starfruit.

Stone fruit pits and fruit seeds

Fruit pits and seeds are not typically considered an edible portion of fruit, but if you find noshing on the hard, woody cores of stone fruits, apples, and pears, you might want to consider stopping. These pits and seeds contain amygdalin, a poisonous compound that is digested into cyanide in the human body.

Now are you going to see symptoms of cyanide poisoning (which include dizziness, rapid breathing, and vomiting) if you accidentally swallow a cherry pit or an apple seed or two? No. You have to eat dozens to reach toxic levels, and the same is true for apple and pear seeds, as well as pits from stone fruits like apricots and peaches. But it’s a good idea to avoid them, or at least eat them in moderation if you find the hard pits delectable.

Shellfish

For some people, shrimp, clams, crab, lobsters, mussels, oysters, and scallops are deadly simply because they’re one of the most serious food allergies. One bite for people who are allergic can cause anaphylaxis, a severe allergic response that can be deadly if not treated quickly enough.

For others, the danger in these foods from the sea comes from the bacteria that hide out in them. That’s especially the case for raw shellfish, which are a leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S., according to the CDC. These shellfish and mollusks filter water through their bodies while they’re living in the ocean. They can absorb some potentially harmful microbes and bacteria in the water and bring them to you.

Raw oysters are a particular concern, as they can be contaminated with a bacteria known as Vibrio. A vibriosis infection can cause diarrhea, vomiting, bloodstream infections, even death.

The only way to kill the these potentially harmful pathogens is cooking the shellfish. The CDC recommends cooking seafood to 145°F and reheating it to 165°F. Raw and undercooked shellfish, they say, should be avoided.

Raw milk, cheese, and dairy products

SWAT teams rarely swarm farms, but when they do, you can bet it might have something to do with raw dairy. In the U.S., some states forbid the sale of raw or unpasteurized milk. Others heavily restrict the sale of these products to farms or retail stores. That’s because they can make people sick, or worse.

Raw milk and dairy products have not been pasteurized. In other words, they have not been heated to kill or reduce the number of potentially harmful pathogens. Raw milk advocates say the food is healthier and more nutritious before it’s heated, but in reality, your morning cup of milk could be swarming with potentially deadly bacteria.

In fact, the CDC says raw milk was responsible for more than 127 outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella, and Campylobacter. A large number of those outbreaks involve children, who are more likely to experience severe symptoms of foodborne illness than adults.

Foods that are made with raw milk can still be just as dangerous. Raw milk cheeses, such as Camembert, may harbor the pathogens, as can raw milk ice creams and yogurts.

Sprouts

Sprouts, like alfalfa sprouts, grow best in warm, humid conditions. That just happens to be the happy zone for bacteria proliferation, too. E. coli, salmonella, and listeria are commonly tied to foodborne illness from sprouts.

According to Foodsafety.gov, sprouts are responsible for 30 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1996. Children, elderly adults, people with a compromised immune system, and pregnant women are more at risk.

In the late 1990s, when sprouts were increasingly popular, the FDA tried to provide the sprout industry with safe practices for better growing, and they continue to work together to try to make sprouts safe to consume. You may see them at farmers’ markets and even in some grocery stores, but proceed with caution.

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