MadSci Network: Agricultural Sciences

Re: Do any poisonous things taste good?

Date: Fri May 28 08:31:25 1999
Posted By: Phyllis Stumbo, Staff, Nutrition, University of Iowa
Area of science: Agricultural Sciences
ID: 926406039.Ag

What tastes good is a learned behavior. We develop aversions to things that make us sick (like poison). This aversion is expressed as tasting bad. In general, poisons taste bad to us, but taste is not a reliable measure of a poison. Mushrooms are a classic example of something that tastes "good" to us, but some are poisonous and the taste does not warn us. Another example of a poison that tastes "good" are foods tainted with botulism, they don't taste bad. Botulism (caused by a toxin from the clostridium botulinum bacteria) is such a potent poison that we do not have a chance to learn that it tastes bad, because one taste will kill. This toxin would not be expected above ground in the forest, however.

Many other "poisons" are not as lethal as botulism. Many plants are classified as "poison" because they cause discomfort or illness. Many leafy plants contain enough oxalate crystals to cause gastrointestinal distress (stomach pain, sick feeling in the stomach) because the crystals are sharp and cause local irritation when eaten raw. However, some vegetables that we eat and learn to like, such as spinach, contain oxalate which is leached into the cooking water and discarded during cooking, leaving a nourishing vegetable. If we learn to like spinach we may not consider the oxalate taste as "bad", and in small doses it is harmless.

So, if you are lost in a forest do use your taste to test plants before eating them, but to be on the safe side learn which plants are edible before you start your hike. There is an interesting web site from Nova Scotia with pictures of poisonous and non-poisonous plants. Go to and search for 'poison plant' on their search engine.

Phyllis J. Stumbo, PhD, RD, LD, Clinical Research Center, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242 Office (319) 384-9746 FAX (319) 384-8325

"I'm a poison-tester-taster Tru. I'm here to taste your food for you, 'Cause you could die in half a minute if there's one drop of poison in it." Heather, 5th grade, Eveleth-Gilbert Public Schools, Gilbert, MN

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