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France warned over poisonous autumnal vegetables

Fans of cooking with pumpkin and autumnal squash in France are being warned to watch out for vegetables that look similar in appearance, but are actually poisonous.

French health agency L'Agence de la Santé (Anses) issued the warning this Halloween (October 31), as sales of pumpkins, squashes, and gourds increase over the autumnal months.

Often, such “gourd-like” vegetables may be sold near or together with edible varieties - in the fruit and vegetables section of supermarkets, shops or market stalls - but they are in fact poisonous, and intended for decoration only.

They may be sold under names such as “coloquintes (citrillus colocynthis or colocynth)” or “courges amères (bitter gourd, desert gourd, bitter apple or bitter cucumber)”, and may be green, yellow, or orange in colour.

(They are not to be confused with bitter melon either, which is a green, edible vegetable, often seen and consumed in Asia.)

In its warning, Anses said: “[Some of these vegetables] are toxic, and contain cucurbitacins, which are a very bitter irritant, and can be the cause - very soon after eating - of digestive pain, nausea, vomiting, sometimes-bloody diarrhea, and severe dehydration that could require hospitalisation.”

This irritant remains dangerous even after cooking, the alert said. The vegetables contain the substance as a deterrent to predators in the wild.

The public is warned that edible gourds and squashes - such as pumpkin or butternut squash - will have a neutral or slightly-sweet taste, whereas poisonous varieties may taste bitter and odd.

People with vegetable patches are also warned to be careful, as growing poisonous varieties of these gourds near normally-edible varieties can spread the damaging irritant from one plant to another, and could even contaminate the seeds that might be used to sow next year’s crop.

Anses has advised people to be certain that they are buying and consuming edible varieties, and said that growers should buy new seeds every year, so they are sure to be safe.

One study of reports to national anti-poison centres in France found that 353 people had reported symptoms from accidentally eating poisonous gourds between 2012 and 2016.

There were no deaths, but in 4% of cases, the symptoms were extreme and/or prolonged, including intense gastric pain, bloody diarrhea, dehydration and hypotension. Some patients required hospitalisation.

Of those who knew where their bad food had come from, 54% had been poisoned by their own vegetable patch, and 46% from having bought a vegetable in a local supermarket or food shop.

Another study of anti-poison centre reports found that between 2012 and 2018, eating bad gourds was the third most-common cause of digestive issues (8.5%), after toxic flower bulbs or plants that had been believed to be edible, such as bad garlic, or onions (12%); and confusion between edible chestnuts and inedible conkers (11%).

Anyone suffering from digestive issues in France, especially those causing loss of blood or loss of consciousness or seizures, should call the emergency number 15, as well as a doctor and/or a local anti-poison centre.

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