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Beware The Smell Of Bitter Almonds – Why Do Many Food Plants Contain Cyanide?

Posted Jul 20 2010 3:03pm

Could lima beans kill you? Probably not. Lima beans commercially grown in the United States are restricted to two varieties with low cyanide levels.

In murder mysteries, the detective usually diagnoses cyanide poisoning by the scent of bitter almonds wafting from the corpse. The detective knows what many of us might find surprising — that the deadly poison cyanide is naturally present in bitter almonds and many other plants used as food, including apples, peaches, apricots, lima beans, barley, sorghum, flaxseed and bamboo shoots.

There’s a reason that cyanide exists in all these plants, and it is — to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes — evolutionary, suggests Kenneth M. Olsen, PhD, an assistant professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Olsen, who studies white clover, cassava and other plants that produce cyanide, says the plants have an ingenious poison delivery system, one that evolution has designed to discourage herbivores from feasting on them.

Due to proper food processing techniques and strict regulations, cyanide-wielding plants pose little threat to the American food supply. But, in Africa, where cassava root has become a major part of subsistence diets, many poor people suffer from a chronic form of cyanide poisoning known as konzo.

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