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Toxic Squash Syndrome…it’s a thing

BY EMILY WEBB


I had a rather unpleasant introduction to the horrors of veggies gone bad recently.


So, as if being in lockdown isn’t bad enough, I managed to get sick, despite barely leaving the house…and the culprit was a homegrown pumpkin.


Someone close to me (I won’t name names) lovingly dropped off a pumpkin at my door because they know I eat a lot of veggies.



I roasted some of it to have with my dinner and tucked in. I really should have stopped at a few bites because it tasted a bit chalky and, on reflection, bitter. However, I am someone who has never met a meal I didn’t like and of the old school thinking of finishing everything on my plate (it’s got nothing to do with waste, rather I just love food) so I pushed through and finished the meal.


I felt almost immediately unwell. Like a heavy, nauseated feeling and I could have fallen in a Snow White-type slumber had I not felt so gross.


I haven’t vomited since one of my pregnancies and that night I bolted to the loo, knowing I had to get rid of the contents of my stomach (TMI, I know).


I consulted Dr Google and searched “sick after eating pumpkin”.


My fear heightened when one of the top search results was “two women lose their hair after being poisoned by squash”.


Indeed, you can be poisoned by that family of vegetable. Specifically, pumpkins, squashes, melons and zucchinis (known as the cucurbits family). These can produce a group of chemicals known as cucurbitacins, which taste bitter and can also have toxic effects on the body.


This isn’t something you usually find in supermarket veggies. Apparently farmers cultivate these plants for our eating pleasure to produce little to no cucurbitacins, to avoid the bitter taste because “ew, gross”.


However sometimes accidental cross-pollination of crops, issues with seeds, or when plants grow in the wild or in home gardens, mean some varieties of the produce contain high levels of the chemicals, creating the toxic, bitter taste.


I rang the National Poisons Information Line, mostly expecting that the person taking my call would think I was an idiot.


“I ate some pumpkin tonight and it tasted a bit weird and now I feel really sick,” I quietly said.


Matter-of-factly the woman on the other end of the line said “yes, there’s a toxin in pumpkin and that family of vegetables and fruits that can make you sick”.


I felt less silly but also terrified and said, “am I going to die? Do I need to go to hospital?”.


“No, you’re not going to die,” she gently responded.


“You’ll probably feel unwell for the next few days. Keep an eye on it, stay hydrated but if you feel it is getting worse give us a call or see your doctor”.


I suspected the orange criminal in question (I don’t mean Donald Trump) wasn’t from the local supermarket. So, I texted the person who gave it to me: “where did you get that pumpkin?”.


“Got them in [REDACTED], a local was selling them outside his house.”


It was then I truly knew I’d fallen prey to toxic squash syndrome.


It’s a thing. Just ask this columnist from The Guardian whose family fell ill after eating homegrown zucchini.


*A shout out to the Poisons Information Line too. If you ever need to call it’s a 24/7 free call anywhere in Australia on 131 126.