Deadly Foods or Kitchen Folklore? 8 Food Items to Approach With Caution

If you've ever wondered if certain "poisonous" foods are really as dangerous as our parents made them out to be, read on.

As children, we're often warned not to eat certain things because "they're poisonous." And I started wondering if those warnings had any basis in fact, or if they were nothing but a combination of hand-me-down myths, and an easy way for parents to scare children into behaving. As it turns out, most of the things I was told were poisonous were indeed, to one degree or another, poisonous. Though most will not cause death, they will often produce enough gastrointestinal distress that you might THINK that you're dying.

Here are some of the most commonly cautioned food items that do, in fact, have a touch of toxicity.

fresh rhubarb stalks and leaves

Rhubarb Leaves

Growing up in the Midwest, the appearance of those plants that looked like red celery was one of the major harbingers of spring, and I knew a strawberry-rhubarb pie was soon to make its way to the table. But, we were always forbidden from picking it ourselves because the leaves were supposedly poisonous… absolutely true.

The stalks are perfectly edible, but rhubarb leaves are not something you want to consume. They contain a notable concentration of oxalic acid — which can not only produce very unpleasant symptoms, but it also prevents the absorption of calcium, a nutrient we all need. (Oxalic acid, though a natural compound found in a number of plants, is the active ingredient in the cleaning product Bar Keepers Friend, if that tells you anything.) Having said that, you'd need to eat quite a few rhubarb leaves to do any major harm, but it really is safer just to avoid them altogether. It's also a good idea to make sure your cats and dogs do not have access to rhubarb plants.

Cherries and cherry pits

Cherry Pits

Cherry pits contain cyanide, and cyanide, my friends, is not something you want to ingest. The good news is that the pit must be cracked open to be really dangerous, so if you were to accidentally swallow a whole should be fine. But I'd still advise you try not to — and if you do find yourself in that position, play it safe and call your doctor.

Apple cut in half
Image Source

Apple Seeds

Yes, apple seeds are on the "things I really should not eat list." Once again, cyanide is the culprit here. But as with cherry pits, swallowing a few whole apple seeds should not cause any health problems. Seriously though, just don't make a habit of ingesting these things.

Red Beans

(Uncooked) Kidney Beans

Now, it's hard to imagine a scenario where you would eat a dried, unsoaked, uncooked kidney bean, but still...don't. Kidney beans contain a large amount of lectins; similar to oxalic acid, lectins are often referred to as an "antinutrient." And, lectins will produce a whole host of highly unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms. It only takes a few to cause these symptoms, so soak your kidney beans and fully cook them before enjoying.

Black berries elderberry cluster Sambucus nigra with sky


Don't panic: Ripe, cooked elderberries are just fine. But the unripe berries, the leaves, and the bark contain both cyanide and lectins. The consequences of consuming any of the above are not good…

As I write this, I'm remembering the gorgeous elderberry tree we had in our yard in Michigan when I was a child, and I'm counting my blessings that I was warned not to eat the tempting little berries. And that I actually obeyed...not always a foregone conclusion during my childhood!

Nutmegs with grater
Photo by Getty Images.


There was always what I assumed was an urban myth floating around that eating enough nutmeg could get you "high." I never tried; my nutmeg consumption was basically limited to Christmastime. Turns out, it is sorta kinda almost possible, but you'd have to eat a whole lot of nutmeg. And long before you felt that kind of effect, you would be very, very ill. There is an oil in nutmeg, called myristicin, that's to blame. That said, a dusting on your eggnog, or a bit in your baked goods, is A-OK.

Sunlight and warmth turn potatoes skin green witch contain high levels of a toxin, solanine which can cause sickness and is poisonous. Do not buy and eat green potatoes! Heap on sackcloth.
Helin Loik-Tomson via Getty Images


Sometimes older potatoes, or ones that have been exposed to too much light, will start to turn green. Glycoalkaloids (solanine) are the "bad guys" in this scenario, and they will yield incredibly unpleasant physical effects if consumed. Now I will admit to you that if a potato has the barest hint of green, and it's otherwise firm, unsprouted, unwrinkled, and smells like a potato — and if a pass or two with the vegetable peeler clearly removes any trace of green — I have been known to go ahead and use them. However, you should never, ever eat green potato flesh, nor sprouts on a potato, nor the area around the sprouts.

And certainly if the potato is wrinkled or (heaven forbid) offers even a whiff of that unmistakable rotten potato odor (if you've ever smelled it, you'll never want to smell it again), get that spud into the trash or compost pronto. To stay on the safe side, I'd suggest using all of your potatoes before any green appears — and always store them in a cool, dry, dark place.

Tropical Grill, How to Cut a Mango


Don't worry, I am not going to tell you to forgo eating mangoes, one of the world's great pleasures. However, do be aware, they contain urushiol. The other common plant filled with urushiol? Poison ivy. However, eating the delicious flesh of a mango is no problem; just avoid eating the skin, bark, and leaves. And for most people, handling the unpeeled fruit is not a problem while you peel it.

Bunch of Blooming Poinsettia Flower
Constantine Johnny


While not a food, I couldn't write this piece without mentioning the poinsettia. Many of us love to fill our homes with these beautiful bright red plants each December, but someone on the news will inevitably warn us that death is right around the corner if we eat a leaf. Now, while it is true that ingesting a few leaves will give you an upset stomach, and that contact with the plant's milky sap can cause an itchy rash, the poinsettia is not a murderer in Santa's clothing. Should you eat them? No. Should you try to avoid the sap if you break off a stem or a leaf? Yes. But if you happen to "mess up" on either front, I still believe that you'll live through December. So feel free to decorate with abandon as long as you are careful about keeping the poinsettias out of reach for children or pets. (In fact, if you have young kids or animals, you might be better off decorating with faux poinsettias indoors.)

Close-Up Of Rhubarbs On Cutting Board
Natalia Rüdisüli / EyeEm

All of the above facts are certainly not intended to frighten anyone, but having a wealth of reliable information at hand is never a bad thing, and I believe that these bits of information are worth knowing. And a very important P.S. — if you know that you are severely allergic or susceptible to the dangerous compounds in any of these foods, you should completely avoid them.

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