Everyone has a bunch of foods that they like, another set of ones that they hate, and a whole lot of “it’s fine, I guess” in between.
However, there are some very special foods that don’t readily fit in any of those categories. These are the foods that really make you feel something, and not in the greatest possible way. They might taste fine, but contain ingredients that wreak havoc on your body in ways you could never believe. They might give out a smell that sends even the proudest skunk sulking in the corner. They might be extremely healthy, unless you make a small mistake that completely flips the script. The dangers they pose come in many forms, but they all have one thing in common: They’re the foods with the ability to make us sick.
10. Chili peppers
When you’re talking about foods that make people sick, there’s no denying that chili peppers must be included on the list, simply because of the sheer physical reaction they incite. The capsaicin that the heat comes from is the same stuff they use in pepper sprays, and though its heat doesn’t actually burn us, a strong enough pepper will be able to convince your brain that its hotness is of the touching-the-stove variety. Which, as anyone who has eaten hot enough chili peppers can attest, is no picnic when you just ate said hot stove.
Perhaps surprisingly — or unsurprisingly, depending on your personal stance on spicy food — the fact that chili peppers can make us physically sick doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily bad for us. In fact, they’re pretty healthy. They might sometimes taste like hell incarnate, but chili peppers are very rich in minerals, vitamins and an assortment of beneficial substances. They have also evolved to repel harmful bacteria, which keeps them from spoiling and, ironically, prevents you from getting sick.
Still, “It’s actually pretty healthy” is probably not going to be the first thing on your mind if you eat a ghost pepper on a dare.
(Please don’t eat a ghost pepper on a dare.)
9. Raw oysters
Oysters and other molluscan shellfish are delicacies that are commonly eaten raw, which is all fine and well — if the water is clean. The problem here is that they’re filter feeders, and as you can imagine, the whole “filter” part means that the dirtier the oyster’s home waters are, the more nasty stuff it contains. Lots of things can affect the oyster’s cleanliness, from the presence of fecal bacteria and biotoxins to rainfall and river flows. Basically, if your oyster lived in a sewer, you’ll eat the worst bits of the sewer.
Apart from the various possible problems the oyster’s eating habits bring, there’s also the fact that you have to be very, very healthy to be able to safely eat a raw oyster. There’s a long list of health conditions and diseases that basically overrule your ability to eat raw shellfish, ranging from the fairly unsurprising (cancer, various metabolism and/or gastrointestinal conditions, drinking too much alcohol) to borderline commonplace (diabetes).
Should you eat a raw oyster and be unlucky enough to be in a risk group and see the risk become reality, you could be looking at a whole array of illnesses, or even death. The Virginia Department of Health mentions that the delicacy could give you hepatitis A, norovirus, or Vibrio infection — which means a wide selection of potential symptoms that include (but are not limited to) “vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, stomach pains, severe weakness,” or perhaps “skin rashes and blisters, shaking chills, and high fever.” That’s a pretty heavy schedule, even disregarding the possibility of death mentioned earlier.
8. Ackee fruit
Ackee fruit was imported to Jamaica from West Africa, and its uniquely creamy, buttery tang proved popular enough that it’s now their national fruit. There’s just one minor problem: you have to wait until it’s ripe before eating it, and be really, really sure that it is before you eat the thing. Otherwise, it can literally make you sick. There’s even a disease named after the adverse effects of the fruit: “Jamaican Vomiting Sickness.”
Unripe ackee pods contain tons of hypoglycin, a poison gas that eventually goes away when the pods ripen and open. Crack a pod open too early, and the remaining poison can kill you. If it doesn’t, it’s Jamaican Vomiting Sickness time. The symptoms can be exactly what you can probably imagine, but if you’re really unlucky (though not quite “dead” unlucky), you might also look into symptoms like “coma, convulsions, delirium, toxic hepatitis, acute dehydration and a state of shock.” Yeah, Jamaica isn’t messing around when it comes to national fruits.
7. Kidney beans
There are few foods that are more unassuming and innocent than red kidney beans. If anything, you’d expect them to be full of healthy substances which, to be fair, they are. However, red beans also have some sneaky ways to make you sick.
Correctly prepared kidney beans are fine and safe and good, provided you enjoy kidney beans. However, raw kidney beans have tons of phytohaemagglutinin, a tongue-twistingly named protein that’s toxic. As such, incorrectly prepared kidney beans run the risk of giving you kidney bean poisoning, which is basically diarrhea and vomiting — only, it can get so bad that you have to be hospitalized.
Another, stranger badly-cooked-kidney-bean danger comes in the form of antinutrients — a group of substances that wreck your digestive system’s ability to absorb nutrients. This might not seem like a huge deal in countries where people could generally afford to lose a few pounds. However, it can be a major issue in developing countries that heavily rely on beans for sustenance.
As a highly flexible source of carbs that can be used in a variety of ways — including flour — cassava is a huge deal in some countries, such as Uganda. Unfortunately, there’s one catch in dealing with the root. Unless you follow a proper detoxification process that involves soaking, drying and scraping it before turning it into anything edible, it’s going to contain a ton of cyanogenic glucocide. Yep, we’re talking about cyanide, here, and if there’s enough of it in the cassava, eating it could make you seriously sick — or even be fatal.
This isn’t just a theoretical situation, either. Cassava cyanide poisoning outbreaks absolutely happen. In one September 2017 instance, 98 people were poisoned in Western Uganda, and two of them died.
Here’s what you need to know about the durian. In the summer of 2020, a post office in Schweinfurt, Germany received a strange, vile-smelling package that launched a large-scale evacuation operation. 12 workers received medical treatment, and a total of 60 postal folks were swiftly evacuated as a full house of emergency workers, firefighters and police descended upon the nefarious package.
It contained four durian fruits.
The durian is a tasty and incredibly nutritious fruit that’s so popular in Southeast Asia that they call it “the king of fruits.” Its creamy flesh and sizeable seeds are often used in cooking, and the whole package comes with just one minor drawback: The flesh smells awful. Like, evacuate-a-Bavarian-post-office awful.
The German incident was not an isolated one. In 2019, the University of Camberra library in Australia was evacuated because a durian in a trash can was mistaken for a gas leak. In 2018, a similar situation caused the evacuation of over 500 students and staff at the University of Melbourne. In 2015, another smelly durian alert took place on the British island of Jersey. We could go on.
So, there you are. The durian might not be the most dangerous or poisonous thing on this list, but the fact that it can single-handedly cause an evacuation of hundreds of people just by smelling awful is nothing short of a superpower.
4. Hot dogs
Look, hot dogs aren’t necessarily sickening. Unless they haven’t gone bad, or you haven’t let them fester on the table for hours on end, or you avoid checking how they’re actually made, there’s no reason to suspect that they’d make you sick.
However, you absolutely can choke on them. Hot dogs are the perfect size and shape to be a severe choking hazard for kids, especially if you cut them wrong. It’s not just a “babies can’t eat properly” thing, either. In 2014, an adult competitive eater choked to death on a hot dog. When a Washington Post journalist started digging around, it turned out that hot dogs are a leading cause of choking for kids under 14, and the situation was serious enough that the American Academy of Pediatrics has demanded that the shape of the hot dog should be redesigned.
We actually find ourselves in support of that idea, both because it’s terrifying that a 13-year-old can apparently just randomly choke on a hot dog, and because we kind of want to see just what shape a redesigned hot dog would be. Good luck to vendors trying to stuff the dodecahedron dog in a bun with dragged-through-the-garden trimmings.
It’s one thing to choke on food, but a completely another one when the food actively tries to choke you. That’s what sannakji, an esteemed, yet controversial South Korean delicacy, can do to you.
Sannakji is, essentially, tentacles of a small octopus dipped in sesame oil. The catch is that they’re so very, very fresh that they’re still wriggling. Some even enjoy eating the whole octopus rare. You can probably guess where the health hazards come in — the wriggling tentacles mean that they’re a choking hazard, and it doesn’t exactly help that their still-active suction cups could very well grab the inside of your throat, with potentially deadly results.
Apart from the health risks the dish posits, animal rights activists have pointed out that the fact that the tentacles are moving mean they must still be alive, which would make the existence of the dish sheer torture for the animal involved. According to octopus expert and author Peter Godfrey-Smith, they might very well have a point. “It is not clear where the [octopus] brain itself begins and ends,” he has written. “The octopus is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain and nervous system.” Such points, combined with the fact that the tentacles still respond to outside irritants, have caused some to believe that the sannakji octopi are still alive in their own, strange way. Could that be why they try to strangle the folks eating them from the inside?
2. Casu Marzu
Cheese is always a little bit touch-and-go on the “making you sick” front. Sure, a slice of cheddar slowly melting on a burger patty is a thing of pure glory, but there are other cheeses. Wild cheeses. Dangerous cheeses. Cheeses from the scary side of town, with the weird blue veins and a smell that clears your sinuses from a block away. And then there is Casu Marzu.
Casu Marzu is essentially a hard, Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese, with one significant spin on the theme: It’s completely infested with tiny, wriggling maggots. This is no accident, either. Local cheese makers specifically invite Piophila casei flies to make the cheese wheel their home by cutting a small opening in it and leaving it in the open. The idea is that once the flies lay their eggs in the cheese and the larvae hatches, the excretions involved will react with the cheese’s protein and fat, which makes it nice and creamy.
Once the cheese starts leaking, it’s good to eat — at least, for a given measure of good. The cheese is described as a strong, gorgonzola-like thing with a strong smell and a slightly acidic taste, but there’s one little caveat: The maggots are still there, and they’re jumping around. Yep, the cheese maggots can jump “a few inches,” which means that when the wheel is unsealed, you should protect your eyes to avoid being blinded by a shower of kamikaze maggots.
The maggots must be alive at this point, because if they’re already dead, the cheese has gone bad. However, you shouldn’t actually eat them alive, because they can damage your digestive system, causing nausea, pain, and/or vomiting. So, if you really want to taste the maggot cheese despite all obvious drawbacks, you’re faced with a choice: Either risk it and eat the jumpy maggot cheese with its inhabitants still alive — or mash them to death, and then eat their home. From their point of view, you’re the destroyer of worlds either way.
Pufferfish chef must be one of the most stressful occupations on the planet. Sure, they don’t have to dive with sharks, or wrestle alligators, or open the store doors on the morning of a Black Friday sale. However, they toil away every day, knowing with absolute certainty that a slightest mistake could result in the death of a human being.
There are over 120 species of pufferfish, and they get their name from their unique defense method of rapidly expanding into a hard-to-eat ball by rapidly filling their stomach with water. Nearly all of them also have another, less strange but infinitely more dangerous weapon at their disposal: They’re poisonous. Very, very poisonous. Your average pufferfish contains enough of the highly toxic tetrodotoxin (which is 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide) to kill 30 humans. That’s a whole lot of poison, and the situation’s not made any easier by the fact that there’s no antidote.
This wouldn’t be a problem if pufferfish tasted like urine-soaked rubber bands. Unfortunately, some pufferfish taste pretty awesome, and are considered a delicacy. Enter the Japanese dish known as fugu, which is very expensive, and requires a specially trained and licensed expert to make. Prepare the dish incorrectly, and it’s so poisonous that despite its comparative rarity, as of 2018 it still caused an estimated 50% of serious food poisoning deaths in Japan.
It’s not a particularly nice way to go, either. Tetrodotoxin starts slowly numbing and even paralyzing your body roughly 20 minutes to three hours after the meal, and if things get really serious, the paralysis eventually stops you from breathing.