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toxic squash syndrome

What causes gourds and squash to taste bitter?

By Nguyen DuyPublished about a month ago 3 min read
toxic squash syndrome
Photo by Christophe Dion on Unsplash

In 2015 in Germany, an elderly couple was given a bag by their neighbor. That night, they used it to cook stew. The dish had an unusually bitter taste, but the two didn't mind much. Within a short time, they were hospitalized with symptoms of food poisoning. Sadly, the husband died from severe poisoning. The wife is lucky to survive because she eats little. You might think your neighbor injected some poison into the bag, but that's not true. This is an original pumpkin, he sowed the seeds and planted it in his garden. He still eats other fruits in the garden and even eats a lot without any problems. The neighbor and the couple had no idea that they had encountered a toxic pumpkin egg syndrome.

Once upon a time, squash was a wild plant. Living in a natural environment with too many fruit-eating species, squash is limited in its ability to grow. Squash needs a defense mechanism, so it develops a neurotoxic substance inside the fruit, called Cucurbitacin. As a clear warning to attackers, this substance has a bitter taste. However, cucurbitacin concentration is not a fixed index. Squash plants that live in environments with few enemies tend to produce less cucurbitacin, which means the bitterness inside their fruit is reduced. Somehow, the ancients knew this. They brought the less bitter fruits to plant, gradually selecting and cross-breeding over many generations until they created a non-bitter squash. That is the most reasonable hypothesis. As for the details about taming squash, it is impossible to write down. It could also be like the story of watermelon, only we know that to this day, we can eat the fruit safely. This is not just a story specific to zucchini, but a common story of many cucurbit plants. These include: gourds, squash, luffa, cucumbers, watermelons and many more. In human hands, these fruits have become safe foods, while their wild relatives are still full of cucurbitacin. The types of gourds grown in gardens today have been genetically inhibited from producing toxins. They sometimes still contain cucurbitacin, but always at safe levels. Heat is often the main cause of increased cucurbitacin content in squash. Heat stress causes the squash to strengthen its defense mechanism and produce more toxins. This is most clearly shown in cucumbers. If you've ever eaten a bitter-tasting cucumber, that's the taste of poison tofu. However, the amount of toxicity in these fruits is still far from dangerous levels, and in the worst case it only causes a few temporary symptoms. The truly dangerous situation is when the fruit encounters a poisonous pumpkin egg. When pollen from a wild squash plant blows in the wind and lands on a squash flower in the garden, the cross-pollination that results in the squash can undergo a reverse mutation and carry the original toxic gene. It contains as much cucurbitacin as a wild fruit. This amount of toxicity is not decomposed during the baking process. People who eat this pumpkin will suffer from gastrointestinal infection, more serious organ swelling, and in the worst case, death.

Poisonous squash syndrome occurs quite often in cultivated areas near wild nature. However, there will be no reason to fear this syndrome once you know about it. Cases of the fruit being so toxic as to cause death are very rare, and in that case, the amount of cucurbitacin will make the fruit taste so bitter that it cannot be swallowed. All you need to remember is that when a cucurbit fruit tastes bitter, throw it away immediately. Unless it's a bitter melon.


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    NDWritten by Nguyen Duy

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