31 October 2019

Think all plants are good for you? Think again

All plants are great to eat, right? While a plant-based diet certainly has health benefits, researchers say there are some dangers.

You want to decrease your meat consumption, not only for your budget and health, but also for the sake of the environment.

There is truth in the claims that a plant-based diet may be good for your health. Plants provide abundant nutrients, don’t require nearly as much water and land as animals, and are more budget-friendly.

Dangerous chemical properties

But neurotoxicologists at Oregon Health & Science did research that boiled down to one message, which is that not all plants are good for us. And this message especially applies to people in poverty-stricken areas who often rely on a single plant source or have to forage for plant-based foods in the wild.

According to Peter Spencer, professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine, plants have developed chemical properties to defend themselves and to adapt to their environment.

"They have all sorts of chemical defence systems that would make the Department of Defence blush with embarrassment at their efforts,” stated Spencer in a news release.

A recent review published in the journal Environmental Neurology states that plants adapt to their environment by changing their chemical and fungal properties – which means that they can become neurotoxic, especially in a changing climate.

In this review, scientists provide a list of plants across the globe that may sicken or kill undernourished people.

Primary food sources

Among these plants are the fruits of the ackee tree, native to West Africa and Jamaica, lychees which are familiar to all of us, and grasspea, a filling legume rich in protein. In certain areas, people rely on these foods as their primary source of nourishment.

However, as these plants adapt to climate change, they may release toxins that can make people gravely ill.

"This is very concerning, particularly because many people are going to need to rely on these crops in the future," said Valery Palmer, instructor of neurology at the OHSU School of Medicine.

Another food source that was researched and presented cause for concern was the cassava root, which has a similar shape and texture to the sweet potato and is a primary food source for many people in Africa.

Cassava’s toxicity can be reduced through certain preparation methods, but a lack of knowledge and high levels of consumption make it difficult to control.

Important goal

According to Desiré Tshala-Katumbay, professor of neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine, this is cause for concern as those dependent on cassava can lose their ability to walk, an effect which is irreversible.

"Even if it's a low-dose toxicant, cumulative exposure may have long-term effects," Tshala-Katumbay said.

Right now an important goal of OHSU researchers is to improve human health in developing countries by increasing our knowledge about neurotoxins.

Image credit: iStock


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