Eggplant is a much-loved vegetable for its rich flavor and culinary versatility, but did you know that this Mediterranean staple has some unsavory elements that could be considered poisonous?
Eggplants, like tomatoes, peppers and potatoes, are part of the botanical family solanaceae, otherwise known as nightshades. If that sounds at all sinister to you, it’s because this family of plants have carried with them the unsavory stories of their past.
In the Middle Ages, “beauty tonics” were made with a member of the nightshade family, belladonna (from where the plant got its common name, meaning ‘beautiful lady’ in Italian). Unfortunately, when the women who used belladonna-laced beauty tonics began to suffer side effects such as seizures and breathing difficulties, the plant began to be used for more sinister purposes as a poison.
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But what does this have to do with eggplants, you ask? These delicious vegetables, while not nearly as dangerous as belladonna, also contain the bitter-tasting alkaloids used as a chemical defense mechanism: solanine.
But here’s why you don’t need to be too worried about it.
“You would have to eat a tremendous amount of eggplant in a serving to do yourself any harm,” America’s Test Kitchen’s Science Editor, Paul Adams, said.
“A ripe eggplant contains the most solanine: 75 micrograms per gram of fruit,” he added. “In order to injure herself, a 150-lb person would need to eat about 40 million micrograms of solanine, which is 500,000 grams of eggplant, or 1000 eggplants in a single sitting.”
Which, for the vast majority of us, is a near-impossible undertaking.
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However, many people still maintain their fear of eggplants, citing a tingling or numbing sensation when they eat them. This can also be explained by the plant’s chemical components, but in this case comes down to capsaicin, the alkaloid that gives chilis their “burn”.
While selective breeding of many cultivated vegetables in the solanaceae genus have reduced or eliminated their capsaicin content, mature eggplants are the most likely to impart the tingling sensation, as the alkaloid is concentrated mostly in their seeds, which emerge as the vegetable matures.
To avoid any uncomfortable sensations while eating the vegetable, opt for younger varieties of the plant and you should be able to chow down in peace.
So the next time you enjoy a dish of Sautéed Eggplant with Polenta or Roasted Zucchini and Eggplant Lasagne, you can rest assured that you’ll be perfectly safe to do so… just try to avoid that 500th serving.