Cucurbitacins in plant food

image of Cucurbitacins in plant food

Poisoning due to Cucurbitaceous vegetables seems to be linked to intake of immensely bitter vegetables. The bitter and toxic compounds in these vegetables are cucurbitacins, which are well known in wild varieties of these food plants and their related species. The cultivated forms, on the other hand, have during cultivation been selected for being free of the bitter and toxic compounds. Occasionally, cultivars of cucurbitaceous food plants (e.g. squash) back-mutate and regain the ability to produce toxic amounts of cucurbitacins. This review summarises the information available on cucurbitacins in food plants of the family Cucurbitaceae, with the aim to lay down background information required to evaluate the potential risk of being intoxicated by cucurbitacins as a part of the safety assessment of cucurbitaceous food plants, and especially in relation to genetically modified Cucurbitaceous plants.



Human data

The extreme bitterness of cucurbitacins should hinder humans from being exposed to substantial quantities of the compounds. Nevertheless, some poisonings have been reported after consumption of cucurbitaceous food plants. The South African Steyn (1932) reports that he first was made aware of toxic bitter-tasting vegetable marrow of the smooth-skinned maranc (Cucumis sp.) in 1932. A young boy poisoned by the bitter vegetable marrow showed digestive disturbances (vomiting, diarrhoea), prostration, and very severe dyspnoea. When tested on rabbits the vegetable marrow proved to be extremely toxic (Steyn, 1935, 1936). Within three hours after administration, quantities down to 7 g, killed full-grown animals. In the eighteen years that followed Steyn received specimens of vegetable marrow, little gems, watermelon and golden custard squash which had bitter taste or which had resulted in intoxication when consumed (Steyn, 1950). As little as 2.0 g of either fresh or cooked specimen per kilogram body-weight often proved to be fatal to rabbits.


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