There are poisonous plants and animals found in nature. But there are those, which ethnic societies learned to deal with the poison they contain, and having removed it, eat them without any apparent harm. One example is nami (Dioscorea hispida) (photo) a relative of ubi and tugui'. Hispidine is the poisonous principle that can be extracted by means of repeated washing. Like doubtful mushrooms, natives use dogs to test the safety of the product.
The field of ethnobotany and ethnozoology covers interesting studies on how the natives deal with poisonous plants and animals as food, from snakes and puffer fish to wild gabi and cassava. I learned in Ilocos for example, the way cassava is cooked in order to minimize its cyanide content. The tuber is cleaned and cut into pieces, then boiled with the pot cover removed to allow the deadly cyanogas to escape with the steam. By the way storing cassava tuber should be avoided because the cyanide that is concentrated in the bark spreads into the tuber. This is noticeable by the yellowish spots on the tuber. However, this is difficult to notice in the case of the yellow or glutinous varieties of cassava.
The blood of the tangingi is first drained before it is cut and cooked. There are people who are allergic to this kind of fish. The case of my youngest son, Leo Carlo 11, is a classical example of acute allergy to seafood. In the summer of 1998 while my family was vacationing in our hometown, Carlo ate a lot of Talakitok eggs. By midnight, four hours after eating, we had to rush him to the hospital. He could hardly breathe, his eyes were virtually shut, and his body was covered with reddish spots. He was immediately given an antihistamine injection. It took him one week to fully recover.
Symptoms of food poisoning from natural toxins appear to have similar patterns, but mortality rates vary depending on the kind and amount of poison. When Red Tide first appeared in the early eighties in Maqueda Bay in Western Samar, there was very little knowledge about PSP (Paralytic Shellfish Poison). This poison accumulates in tahong or green mussel and talaba or oyster without apparent harming them. There were reported deaths due to eating tahong during the red tide season. The affect is on the nerves and muscles, and probably the brain.
The other kind of food poisons is man-made or man-induced. The most prevalent is farm chemicals. Modern pesticides are designed to cope up with the increasing resistance of insects and pathogens. As a result their residues on food and in the environment have likewise increased tremendously. This is even worst in the case of systemic pesticides that penetrate into the innermost part of the plant as they are absorbed and carried throughout the plant's body via its sap. Any insect that feeds on the sap is killed. This property is also present in some phosphatic pesticides and chlorinated hydrocarbons.
Among the first chlorinated hydrocarbon is DDT that was introduced in the forties as the final answer to the malaria problem, controlling mosquitoes, which spread the disease. It is true that DDT is highly effective not only against mosquitoes but other insects as well that its inventor received the Nobel Prize. It was however, discovered years later that it has a residue that is both persistent and cumulative, and transferred through the food chain. Thus, from the mosquito, the DDT is passed on to the fish, to animals that feed on the fish, and ultimately to man. In spite of the fact that it has long been banned there are still traces of DDT residues found in many places, showing either its persistence, or its illegal manufacture and distribution.
There was a case of cheesedog poisoning in Rizal lately. Scores of children, teenagers and adults attending a party were rushed to the nearest clinics and hospitals. Fortunately all of the victims fully recovered.
Cases of typhoid, hepatitis and gastrointestinal diseases have been on the rise because of unsafe water. In Tokyo and nearby cities Escherichia coli, a common gastrointestinal pathogen spread into an epidemic level. It was controlled after banning the suspected source - hamburger.
There is always a cardinal rule in observing food safety, and that is sanitation. Cleanliness speaks of an establishment's image, and has become an important basis in issuing government permits in the operation of food manufacturing plants, hotels and restaurants.
But how clean is clean? The scientist Lister discovered the principle of aseptic cleanliness. Listerine, a mouthwash brand was named after him. Florence Nightingale, the founder of the nursing profession applied Lister's principle in hospital management. But we often exaggerate cleanliness. We use a variety of cleaning agents such as detergents, pesticides, deodorants, air fresheners, and cosmetics. My father used to warn us in the family, "We are unwittingly introducing into our bodies materials which may be more harmful than the germs we are trying to control." Rub-on mosquito repellant is carcinogenic. So with Chlorine, which is added to drinking water and swimming pool. Greenpeace, a vocal environment vanguard organization once raised a "Chlorine Kills" campaign against the excessive use of the chemical. Sodium fluoride mistaken for baking powder or wheat flour is extremely harmful, yet fluoride used in small amount in toothpaste helps keep our teeth strong and healthy.
I remember a story of a boy whose anemic condition had for so long remained a puzzle, until one morning his doctor dropped by, and while having coffee with the family, exclaimed, "Why, I know now why your son is sick!" He observed that the gold lining of the coffee cup was being worn out. The boy, or whoever was using the cup, was slowly being poisoned. The fine gold rim was actually painted with lead as paint medium.
How many of our utensils at home contain harmful metals? Do not cook food with vinegar in aluminum pots. Do not use Antimony- or Cadmium-plated utensils. Remember that plastic containers react with food, specially the acidic ones. The microwave oven is not as safe as the conventional oven. There are scientists who believe that microwave triggers radiation, which may be harmful to the body in the long run. In spite of this warning the use of microwave, because of its convenience, has increased.
Radiation is an invisible risk. We do not know when, where, and what level we are getting - and when it becomes harmful to the body. In the early eighties the Chernobyl nuclear plant incident in Russia that is located not far from Western Europe, caused worldwide concern and protests. After the meltdown incident, Birch Tree milk from Holland tainted with the fallout found its way to the Philippines. The government upon finding its level of radiation to be higher than the limit set by DOH issued a ban against its use, especially to children. But where did whole shipment go? Pulvoron, anyone?
Here is an outline of other food contaminants and additives, which are reported to be the cause of many ailments and death cases.
1. Seeds of ipil-ipil ground with coffee cause falling hair. It is also a growth retardant due to its mimosin content.
2. Seeds of papaya when dried can pass for black pepper. Papaya fruit contains healthful papain. I do not know the effects of the seed content to the body.
3. Vetsin or mono-sodium glutamate retards mental and skeletal growth specially in children. Vetsin may cause drowsiness after eating. To some people the effect is palpitation and irritability. Burglars silence dogs with pandesal containing vetsin. An overdose may lead to death.
4. Formalin is used to extend the shelf life of fish. The malpractice is to inject it in large fishes, or mixed it with the ice water for small ones. Formalin is a strong poison. It is used in embalming. Formalin was detected in buko juice, which led to the decline of the once flourishing local industry.
5. Cyanide in vegetables was first detected in Benguet when the farmers discovered that the water coming from mine tailings had insecticide property. It was later traced to cyanide compounds used in the mining industry. Cyanide is a very strong poison. It is used in gas chamber in the US.
6. Nitrate or salitre is the chief preservative and food color used. in tocino, longaniza and corned beef. One can easily detect in the urine by analysis and smell. Salitre is known to be carcinogenic.
7. Food dyes make food colorful, but be careful. One time I was shocked to discover my urine crimson red. As I prepared to go to the hospital I examined all the food that I had taken that morning. There, innocently wrapped in cellophane, kneaded into balls, as we know sampaloc (tamarind) candy is made, was the culprit. I took one candy ball and immersed it in a glass of water and stirred. Like ink the glassful of water turned red like the Nile. Jubos - shoe dye, was used as food dye!
8. Aspartame has taken the place of saccharine, the original diet sugar. There has been a decline in the intake of diet soft drinks in the US due to unexplained side effects, ranging from high blood pressure to allergic reactions. Why is decaffeinated coffee no longer as popular as before? Will fatless fat ever get FDA's nod? This is a kind of fat that will not make us fat.
Modern living indeed has many drawbacks. Artificial food, additives and preservatives are common in our food, which we take everyday. Those tempting preparations may be dyed. The cheap kind of vinegar is diluted glacial acetic acid, the same kind of acid used in photography and other industrial processing. Cancer-causing aflatoxin is high in peanut butter. It is just being practical to sell the good seeds as whole peanut, while those of inferior quality are ground into butter. And why is cirrhosis of the liver higher in the south than in the rice-eating regions? It is because corn is more predisposed to the aflatoxin fungus than other cereals. ~