Ok, so I hope I got your attention with the title of this post! Yes, it’s true that something as common as a potato can kill you. But before you get too worked up, you’ll be glad to know that cases of “death by potato” are extremely rare.
Here’s the scoop: potatoes are members of the nightshade family of plants (botanical family = Solanaceae). Also included in this family are eggplant, tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers – both spicy chilies and the sweeter bell peppers. One of the characteristics of nightshade vegetables is that they contain a class of chemicals called alkaloids. These chemicals provide a natural pesticide to keep pesky insects at bay so the plants don’t get eaten alive.
One of these alkaloid chemicals is called solanine, which conveniently also happens to a be a neurotoxin in humans. The word neurotoxin means that this chemical is toxic to the nervous system and causes symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, burning of the throat, irregular heartbeat, nightmares, headaches, and dizziness. In severe cases, solanine intoxication can cause hallucinations, loss of sensation, paralysis, fever, jaundice, dilated pupils, hypothermia and even death!
Sounds scary, right? Well, the good news is that solanine is easily broken down by our bodies and excreted. As an added bonus, solanine isn’t readily absorbed by our gut to begin with. It takes quite a bit, about 90 milligrams (mg) for a 100-pound person, to start noticing symptoms of solanine intoxication. Considering that an average potato only contains roughly 1 mg of solanine, a 100-pound person would need to eat 90 potatoes to get sick.
Now, here is something important to know: when potatoes turn green the solanine content skyrockets, sometimes by as much as 20 times! Now that same 100-pound person only needs to eat 4.5 potatoes to get sick. That’s still a lot of potatoes in one sitting but this is not outside the realm of possibility. And it’s good to know that the highest concentrations of solanine are in the peel, just below the surface and in the sprouted “eyes” which are typically removed anyway. So, a good rule of thumb is to throw away potatoes that are turning green (or at the very least peel them well).
It’s nice to know that the math is in our favor regarding the amount of solanine in potatoes. However, there are several rare but well documented instances of severe solanine poisoning. One of the most famous cases occurred in 1979 at a boys school in London, England. Seventy-eight boys became severely ill with symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and central nervous system depression. The culprit: a bag of potatoes improperly stored from the previous school year. Fortunately, nobody died but other solanine poisoning outbreak victims were not always as fortunate. I won’t go into all the gruesome details but you can read about it in this great article from the Smithsonian magazine.
So, what does this all have to do with food sensitivities? In some sensitive individuals, alkaloid compounds such as solanine and others in nightshade vegetables can wreak havoc on the body in the form of diarrhea, gas, bloating, nausea, painful joints (arthritis), headaches, and depression. In fact, it is a common recommendation for those with arthritis to limit their consumption of nightshade vegetables.
Wondering if you might be suffering from a nightshade vegetable sensitivity? Finding out which of type food is the culprit for ill health takes a lot of sleuth work and trial and error. Let us at Food Sensitivity Solutions™ help you create an optimal nutrition plan for your best health ever! Learn more about our solutions here.