The Most Dangerous Foods in the World

Foods generally aren't very menacing, but if handled or prepared incorrectly, these items can lead to serious illness or death.
Fabienne Lang

You jolt upright in the middle of the night, sweating, nauseous, and with a cramping stomach forcing you into a fetal position. You muster the strength to drag yourself to the bathroom for the inevitable hours of misery ahead of you. 

You guessed it: You have food poisoning. 

Unfortunately, almost any food, from undercooked chicken to unwashed lettuce can lead you to hours of pain and torment, and in some extreme cases, to your death. 

The WHO estimates that, every year, approximately 600 million people fall ill after eating contaminated food, resulting in 420,000 deaths.

Of these 600 million people, some fall ill because they eat food that has been improperly prepared or handled, or was contaminated during processing, some have severe allergic reactions to ingredients, and a very few become ill after testing their limits by voluntarily eating something that ends up being dangerous for them.

Chomping down on the world's hottest chili and ending up in the hospital? It happens more than you may think.

But it's not just spicy or exotic delicacies from around the world that can knock you sideways after one bite. You'd be surprised by the number of staple foods that could kill you if not prepared properly. 

1. Fugu, AKA Pufferfish

Kicking off the list of dangerous foods is the exotic Japanese delicacy, fugu, or pufferfish. It's the most poisonous food in the world and has to be intricately prepared to prevent it from killing its recipient. 

Fugu contains lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in its organs, especially the liver. The poison is a sodium channel blocker and paralyzes the muscles while the victim remains fully conscious. Eventually, the victim becomes unable to breathe and dies from asphyxiation.

In order not to be licensed to serve Fugu, Japanese chefs undergo years of specific training. In the U.S., it can only be sold if it has been prepared in Japan and freeze-flown to the U.S. under license in customized containers. 

The Most Dangerous Foods in the World
The innocuous-looking fugu. Source: Jim/Flickr

To safely prepare fugu, a chef has to know their way around a fugu like the back of their hand, discarding the eyes, brain, ovaries, liver, and intestines with precision. These parts of the fish are lethal as they contain tetrodotoxin. This is a neurotoxin that's up to 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide, and just one fugu has enough poison to kill 30 adults. 

Like the Russian Roulette of foods — if someone eats just one tiny sliver of these parts of a fugu, they can die of respiratory paralysis within a day. However, most people who die from fugu poisoning had prepared the fish themselves.

2. Ackee fruit

Ackee, the national fruit of Jamaica, has been banned in its unripe form in the U.S. since 1973. When unripe, this fruit contains a poisonous toxin called hypoglycin A, which disrupts blood glucose production and increases the risk of hypoglycemia (low sugar presence in blood), leading to a risk of coma or even deathThe seeds should also never be eaten, as these are extremely toxic. 

In order to safely enjoy ackee fruit, you have to wait for it to fully ripen on the tree, and to be doubly safe, blanching it before you eat it will also help lower the fruit's toxin levels. You'll know an ackee is ripe once its red outer shell splits open into three white arils. If the fruit's flesh is still yellow in color, then don't eat it, as it's still unripe.

The Most Dangerous Foods in the World
The Jamaican ackee fruit. Source: kaiton/Flickr

Eating an unripe piece of ackee has been known to cause "Jamaican vomiting sickness," which, after much chundering, can push someone into a coma, and sometimes even to death. However, properly ripened frozen and canned ackee is safe to eat, and permitted in the U.S.

3. Sannakji

If you're unfazed by eating wriggling, slimy tentacles, then order sannakji. This Korean dish consists of live baby octopus tentacles that have been freshly prepared and sliced for daredevil foodies. 

The Most Dangerous Foods in the World
Sannakji delicacy. Source: stylistvn8/Flickr

Unlike fugu or ackee, sannakji isn't poisonous. Instead, customers can choke to death if they don't eat these squirming tentacles correctly. The suction pads on the chopped-up tentacles can stick to the roof of your mouth or the inside of your throat, blocking your airway and causing you to choke to death. 

According to Food and Wine, around six people die from trying to eat sannakji each year. So make sure to chew, chew, chew if you don't want to find yourself stuck in a sticky situation. 

4. Hákarl

This traditional Icelandic treat dates back to the Vikings. Hákarl is a type of rigorously fermented Greenland shark meat. The meat of the Greenland shark is poisonous. It contains high levels of trimethylamine oxide and uric acid, which, if ingested, can cause extreme intoxication, intestinal distress, neurological effects, and can sometimes lead to death. However, the toxins can be neutralized by leaving it to rot.

The Most Dangerous Foods in the World
Hákarl is typically diced into cubes for eating. Source: Jerick Parrone/Flickr

To safely prepare this dish, the shark was traditionally buried under sand for months to neutralize the poisons, then hung up to dry. Today, it is more commonly aged in containers.

If the pungent, fermented smell and taste aren't enough to deter you, most agree that the lingering aftertaste can best be described as urine. Perhaps this is why it is often washed down with a shot of local Icelandic liquor. Even worse, a badly-prepared piece of hákarl can lead you to experience some uncomfortable side effects.

5. Rhubarb

Moving over to more common foods, you might be surprised to find this unassuming plant on the list. Typically used to make jams and pies, the rhubarb stalk is absolutely fine to eat, but steer clear of the leaves.

The Most Dangerous Foods in the World
It's the rhubarb's green leaves you should not eat. Source: Amanda Slater/Flickr

These contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to the kidneys and can even kill you if you consume too much of it. A 143 pound (65 kg) adult would need to eat somewhere between nine to 18 lbs (four to eight kg) of rhubarb leaves for this to happen, but even if only a few leaves are ingested, you would likely suffer a number of unpleasant side effects, like a burning throat and mouth, nausea, difficulty breathing, diarrhea, and more. 

6. Cassava

Cassava, also known as manioc, is a common tropical root that is typically used to make tapioca and is a staple ingredient in Latin American and Caribbean cuisines. However, raw cassava contains the poison cyanide, so it is vital to prepare it correctly. 

The Most Dangerous Foods in the World
Cassava root has to be properly cooked to be safe to eat. Source: Thomas Quine/Flickr 

There are two types of cassava: sweet and bitter. Bitter cassava is harder but has a much higher cyanide content. Depending on whether the cassava is sweet or bitter, its preparation for safe consumption differs. Sweet cassava only needs to be cooked to be safe to eat, whereas bitter cassava needs to be grated, soaked, and then cooked to reduce the cyanide levels. 

7. Red kidney beans

Perhaps the most surprising food on this list is the red kidney bean. This staple pantry fare is a favorite in many dishes as it provides protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. But in their raw or undercooked form, red kidney beans are highly toxic, because of high amounts of phytohaemagglutinin. 

The Most Dangerous Foods in the World
Red kidney beans are a common pantry staple. Source: ajay_suresh/Flickr

Phytohaemagglutinin is a plant protein that causes red blood cells to clump together, leading to symptoms of moderate to severe food poisoning, and can even damage your gut. In order to reduce the level of phytohaemagglutinin in the beans, they need to be soaked and then boiled for a sufficient time (exact times vary, depending on the cooking method). 

Food safety

As you see, proper food preparation, storage, and handling can be a question of life and death, and even in milder cases of food poisoning, can lead to some very unpleasant hours spent near a toilet. 

To minimize cases of food poisoning, countries have put measures in place to optimize food safety.

For instance, in the U.S. the FDA is responsible for protecting public health by ensuring the country's food supply (excluding meat from livestock, poultry, and processed egg products) is safe. The agency carries out tests and has regulations in place to ensure food is grown, packaged, and stored in a safe way. 

Other organizations, such as the Food Safety and Inspection Service, ensure that the U.S.'s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and processed egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.

The CDC also plays a part in keeping updated records, and carrying out investigations of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. to prevent future food-related safety issues. 

For individuals who want to avoid all-nighters curled around the toilet bowl, or a panicked visit to the hospital, make sure to always carefully check how to safely wash, cook, store, and handle your food. And just to be safe, maybe steer clear of the seven aforementioned dangerous foods unless they are properly prepared.

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