The Most Deadly Foods People Actually Eat
Most of us take a few risks when we try a new food. After all, there’s always a chance that we’ll hate whatever it is. And most of us would really think twice before ingesting foods that are banned in the United States.
Scarily enough, those banned foods aren’t the only ones that can have some pretty terrifying consequences. Amazingly, people regularly eat deadly foods both in the U.S. and around the world.
Read on to check out these deadly foods, ranked from the least harmful to those that induce the scariest symptoms — or could even kill you.
17. Blood clams
The risk: Viruses and bacteria, including hepatitis
If the gruesome name isn’t enough to make you think twice about sampling this delicacy, the off-putting appearance might. The New York Times notes that blood clams get their bloody appearance from high levels of hemoglobin. (Most other kinds of clams, for the record, have clear blood.)
Cultivated in Southeast Asia, blood clams filter 40 liters of sea water per day. That means that the clams absorb harmful bacteria and viruses, including hepatitis, typhoid, and dysentery, when harvested in areas without standard sanitary regulations. The hepatitis virus, for instance, can survive for as long as three months in the clams and can infect people who eat them. With proper medical attention, you’ll likely live — but you probably won’t want to eat blood clams ever again.
Next: These berries might grow wild on your property
The risk: Hydrogen cyanide
Elderberries might not kill you, but you definitely need to cook them properly unless you want to feel like you’re going to die after you eat them. Almost every part of the elderberry tree contains hydrogen cyanide or its chemical precursors. That includes the berries and leaves. Cooking the berries destroys the compound, but jam, juice, and wine made from elderberries that weren’t correctly processed can still poison people.
If you eat unripe or improperly cooked berries, they can cause severe diarrhea, nausea, dizziness, headache, rapid heart rate, and even seizures. But again, elderberries won’t kill you — unlike some of the other deadly foods that people actually eat.
Next: A root crop that’s still an important food source in some parts of the world
The risk: Cyanide poisoning
Next on the list? A root crop that could kill you if you eat it raw. Cassava is the third most-important food source in tropical countries. (It’s also a key source of carbohydrates for subsistence farmers in Africa.) But the roots and leaves of improperly processed cassava plants contain a substance that produces cyanide when eaten.
The unprocessed plants contain potentially toxic levels of a cyanogen called linamarin. To reduce the linamarin content, you must dry, soak in water, and rinse or bake cassava. Shortcut processing techniques yield toxic cassava products that have killed people and induced serious health disorders, especially in malnourished populations.
Next: An dairy product that yields deadly drinks as well as deadly foods
14. Unpasteurized milk
The risk: Bacteria, including E. coli, listeria, and salmonella
Many countries in Asia don’t require pasteurization of milk, and in rural parts of France and England, people often don’t pasteurize milk. You can even buy raw milk in the United States. But unpasteurized milk — and products made from it, like artisan cheese or queso fresco — exposes you to bacteria including E. coli, listeria, and salmonella. Drinking raw milk or eating a product made from it can give you brucellosis, which causes flu-like symptoms such as fever, aches, and sweats. It can also cause liver enlargement.
Plus, you may not even know what hit you once you get sick. Travel + Leisure reports that the sickness can “incubate” for up to 20 weeks. Fortunately, a round of antibiotics will knock it out, which makes unpasteurized milk a little less scary than some of the deadlier foods people eat.
Next: A delicacy that makes other deadly foods look pretty tame
13. Casu marzu
The risk: Maggot infestation
Even adventurous foodies pass up the chance to try casu marzu, a sheep’s milk pecorino cheese, because it contains live insect larvae. (Cheese makers deliberately introduce cheese flies, who lay eggs. The eggs hatch, and the larvae begin to eat through the cheese.) According to Travel + Leisure, many people say that the cheese is safe if the maggots are alive and that it’s only gone bad if the larvae die.
But if you eat the maggots alive, they can “survive the trip through your stomach and set up camp in your intestines.” Sure, that sounds terrifying. However, casu marzu doesn’t get a higher ranking on the list of deadly foods because while the maggots burrow into your stomach lining and cause vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps, they almost always make their way out without medical intervention.
Next: A certain amphibian that can cause temporary kidney failure
12. Giant bullfrog
The risk: Toxic kidney failure
The French only eat frog legs, which seems wise given the fact that the rest of the frog, especially its skin and organs, can be toxic to eat. But in Namibia, people consider the entire giant bullfrog — minus a few particularly toxic organs — a delicacy. They consider the giant bullfrog safe to eat if it’s harvested after mating season and the “third rain,” when their levels of toxins have fallen.
However, if you get the wrong frog parts or eat a frog that was harvested before the mating season, you could develop a type of temporary kidney failure that necessitates immediate medical attention. You won’t die, which explains why the giant bullfrog doesn’t rank closer to the top of the list of the most deadly foods, but you probably won’t make the same mistake twice.
Next: A sea creature that can sting you as well as poison you
11. Echizen kurage
The risk: Toxicity when cooked improperly
Most people know that jellyfish can sting you, but did you know that people eat these soft-bodied aquatic animals? Or that you can die if you eat the wrong jellyfish? Echizen kurage, also known as Nomura’s jellyfish, is a Japanese delicacy, but Traveller reports that the jellyfish is only safe to eat when you cook it properly and remove its toxic parts.
Japan experiences a now-annual bloom of these huge jellyfish. (Each one can grow to the size of a large refrigerator.) Making the jellyfish into a popular food may actually help to solve the proliferation problem — so long as each jellyfish gets cooked correctly.
Next: A deadly fruit you might encounter on a trip to the Caribbean
The risk: Jamaican vomiting sickness
The ackee is a Jamaican fruit that is surprisingly dangerous to eat — unless you know how. Only the inner, yellow part of the fruit is safe to consume. The red portions and black parts of the fruit can actually kill you. Jamaicans eat ackee frequently, so many of its fans know how to peel and cut the fruit correctly. You can even find it canned or sample it in Jamaica’s national dish of ackee and codfish.
If you happen to eat the wrong parts of the fruit, you’ll contract Jamaican vomiting sickness, which can cause seizures, coma, or even fatal hypoglycemia. That means that ackee is definitely a deadly food you’ll want to consume carefully.
Next: Another deadly fruit that will poison you with cyanide
9. Buah keluak
The risk: Cyanide poisoning, leading to coma
Another fruit that can kill you? The buah keluak fruit, which grows on the Pangium edule tree in the mangrove swamps of Southeast Asia. The wood and leaves of the tree, along with the flesh and seeds of the buah keluak fruit, all contain a glycoside compound that converts to hydrocyanic acid, also known as cyanide.
If you ingest enough of the toxin, you’ll experience symptoms including shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, seizures, and excessive sleepiness before a coma sets in. Concentrated amounts can even cause cardiac arrest and death. To make the seeds safe to eat, you have to strip off the flesh of the fruit and soak, boil, or bury them in ash.
Next: Tentacles that still move when you eat them
The risk: Choking
Sannakji, also called wriggling octopus, won’t hurt you once you’ve managed to eat it. But Travel + Leisure notes that actually eating it is where things get dicey — and potentially lethal. Nakji is a small octopus served in Korea. The chef removes the legs while the animal is still alive. So the limbs continue wriggling once they land on your plate.
If that doesn’t sound scary enough, the tentacles’ suction cups can actually stick to your cheeks or inside your throat. You can easily choke on the delicacy. In South Korea, about six people die each year after eating it. Want to try Sannakji without dying? Remember to drink lots of liquids, chew thoroughly, and try to eat it while you’re sober, not tipsy.
Next: A seafood dish neither Anthony Bourdain nor Gordon Ramsay can stomach
The risk: Trimethylamine poisoning leading to convulsions and death
Want to learn about another scary seafood dish? Hákarl consists of a Greenland shark that people cure, ferment, and hang to dry for months. It’s Iceland’s national dish, but both Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay have characterized it as one of the worst foods in the world. And Business Insider reports that the Greenland shark is actually poisonous if eaten fresh; it can cause illness and even death, “hence the requirement for intentional rotting.”
The flesh of these giant sharks contains high levels of trimethylamine oxide. When you digest it, that compound breaks down into trimethylamine. And trimethylamine causes intestinal distress, neurological effects, and even convulsions and death if eaten in large enough quantities.
Next: More fermented fish that can poison you with botulism
The risk: Botulism
Another kind of fermented fish, called fesikh, hails from a very different part of the world but can have equally deadly effects. USA Today reports that each year, many Egyptians are rushed to the hospital after eating the traditional delicacy of fermented, sometimes rotted, gray mullet fish to celebrate the spring festival, Shem el-Nessim.
To prepare the dish, people dry the fish in the sun and then ferment it in salt for up to a year. This preparation method puts those who eat the delicacy at risk of botulism, a potentially fatal type of food poisoning caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Even microscopic amounts of this neurotoxin can kill.
Next: Deadly foods that look almost exactly like completely safe foods
5. Wild mushrooms
The risk: Variety, from liver failure to death
This deadly food is one that you can find in many parts of the world. Many people love foraging for wild mushrooms, especially because you can find so many delicious varieties. But as Travel + Leisure points out, toxic mushrooms often look almost exactly like safe ones. And just one poisonous mushroom that gets mixed in with a batch of safe mushrooms can have dangerous consequences.
Symptoms range from stomach cramps and headaches to liver failure and death. Make sure that you consult an expert source if want to try wild mushrooms. If you aren’t 100% sure that a mushroom is safe to consume, just don’t eat it.
Next: Seafood you’ve almost certainly eaten before
The risk: Cholera
Seafood like crab, shrimp, clams, mussels, and oysters sounds pretty safe, but Travel + Leisure reports that you really need to make sure your shellfish is cooked correctly. Otherwise, you could end up with cholera, a bacterial disease typically contracted from an infected water supply.
If you seek appropriate medical attention, you likely won’t die from contracting cholera from poorly cooked shellfish as tourists have in Latin America. But you’ll experience severe diarrhea and vomiting, which can bring on devastating dehydration. Without treatment, victims can die within hours.
Next: A deadly food you thought existed only in movies
3. Monkey brain
The risk: Mad cow disease
Though Travel + Leisure notes that it’s the stuff of urban legend in many Western cultures, monkey brain is actually a delicacy served in countries ranging from China to Malaysia to Singapore. It’s usually not toxic. (How’s that for reassurance?)
But there is a chance you could contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, also known as mad cow disease, from eating monkey brains. The disease causes dementia and progressive neurological deterioration until death. It’s transmitted through an infected animal’s neural tissue, which is exactly what you’re ingesting if you eat an infected monkey’s brain.
Next: Deadly fish that can paralyze and kill you
2. Silver-stripe blaasop
The risk: Paralysis, possibly death
A black-spotted fish called the silver-stripe blaasop is a favorite of fishermen in the Indian Ocean. The fish can reach about 3 feet in length and offers plenty of food, but you have to take out the fish’s liver and reproductive organs if you don’t want to ingest deadly toxins.
According to Travel + Leisure, those toxins can cause paralysis, breathing trouble, and even death. And following the Suez Canal, the species has migrated to the eastern Mediterranean where unsuspecting fisherman have eaten it and died. Pass on this deadly delicacy if you don’t want to risk it.
Next: The most notoriously deadly food of all
The risk: Tetrodotoxin poisoning, leading to paralysis and asphyxiation
A delicacy, fugu is the most notoriously deadly food that people eat despite the danger involved. Travel + Leisure reports that fugu, also known as the blowfish or pufferfish, can kill you within hours if it’s not prepared properly. Chefs who want to prepare it undergo a three-year apprenticeship to learn how to remove the liver and reproductive organs correctly.
A poorly-prepared fugu will poison you with tetrodotoxin, which paralyzes the muscles and eventually causes asphyxiation. There’s no antidote for the poison, but victims can survive if they get assistance with respiration until the poison wears off.
Read More: 18 Foods Banned Around the World