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Wait… Bitter Pumpkins Can Make You Go Bald?

Posted in Food Safety on October 25, 2018

Pumpkins are out in droves this festive season. From pumpkin spice to pumpkin pie, the sweet food takes its annual four months of fame. Unlike most pumpkin articles you’ll peruse this Fall, I want to take you on another journey. This time we are going to look at your head. That’s right, I want to discuss those luscious locks growing from your scalp. Today, I’ve got hair and pumpkins on the mind.

Why? Well, because pumpkins and hair loss have a strange connection.

Don’t panic, yet. Your posh haircut isn’t necessarily at risk, but it can be if you aren’t careful with what pumpkin you put in your mouth. Cucurbit poisoning, or Toxic Squash Syndrome, is a form of food-poisoning caused by the consumption of contaminated Cucurbits. Toxic Squash Syndrome is a real thing. It’s also a rarity inside the U.S., but more common outside the States. In France, within a four-year span, there were 353 cases of poisoning due to inedible squash. However, interest of Cucurbitacins ignited in March 2018. After the consumption of bitter tasting squash, two women in France suffered hair loss due to Toxic Squash Syndrome.

Neither women had relations to each other and they consumed their Cucurbits at different events and times. In the following weeks, they didn’t just suffer physical discomfort. Both developed Alopecia on their head, armpits, and pubic area. This symptom of food poisoning was the first of its kind, and that’s why the Journal of American Medical Association took special interest in this unusual case.

Cucurbi-what?

The Cucurbitaceae family sounds foreign, but it’s filled with familiar produce. Squash, pumpkins, some melons, cucumbers, and zucchinis are all part of this family. These Cucurbits can develop a toxic chemical known as Cucurbitacin e. If that’s getting a bit confusing for you, I understand. These are some repetitive identifiers but bear with me.

These chemicals are toxic to humans, but lucky for us they have a potent signal of their presence. Cucurbitacins are a type of steroid, making them incredibly bitter. The kind of bitter that will make you question your cooking abilities. So, if you get a hefty tinge on your taste buds after a spoonful of squash soup, forfeit your manners and spit it out. Preferably not at the chef.  Remember, because taste is the signifier, the cook might be ignorant to the problem. So, it’ll be up to you to eat carefully and recognize the risk.

Now, let’s talk about the effects of Toxic Squash Syndrome.

Let’s say you force that swallow of bitter pumpkin down your throat and into your belly. It won’t be long before food-sickness takes over your day. You can expect vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and abdominal pain. The new research associating hair loss with toxic plant ingestion shows there is more reason to be cautious. Though the recent cases of hair loss are the first of their kind in association with Toxic Squash Syndrome, the connection is clear. Similar to chemotherapy, the hair loss is temporary, but nonetheless intense. So, once you make it through the rough times of a food borne illness, alopecia may start weeks after consumption.

Just like food poisoning, this sickness will most likely have to run its course. However, it only takes a small amount of Cucurbitacins to make you ill. Ingesting larger amounts can be fatal. Just as it was for an elder German man in 2015, and nearly for his hospitalized wife. Due to this possibility, it’s important to seek medical help for any amounts of Cucurbitacins ingestion. Remember, a website cannot diagnose, you need a trained professional to examine you. Sickness differs with each individual, and blanket statements can be dangerous when variables are missed.

So, who else is responsible?

It goes back to the source. Farmers are careful to cultivate crops to produce miniscule to no amounts of Cucurbitacins, but cross-pollination can play some dirty little tricks. Cucurbits produce these toxins to deter insects. Wild Cucurbits can produce massive levels of toxins, as they aren’t cultured for our safety and to remove the bitter flavor. These toxins are often produced by stress during growth, which is why wild Cucurbits are more prone to contamination. Therefore, it’s important to fertilize and properly water garden life. It is also best to remove any volunteer growth. All it takes is a bit of wild growth to mix into the cultivated crops, and boom, high levels of Cucurbitacins are the result.

Something to think about throughout your holiday feasting:

We’ve all experienced a moment of etiquette that requires a bit of suffering, but risk versus reward should be taken into account. If you are attempting to eat food that tastes problematic to appease the chef, you are a good person, but you’re not a smart one. A host that cares about your meal being satisfying, also cares for your health. Take this into account as you attend dinners during the holidays and pay attention to your palate. I can’t say I’m the most wonderful cook, in fact I will say I’m subpar. I can tell you, I’d be horrified if a dish I served contaminated my friends and family. It may be a hard truth to learn you lack culinary artistry, but in this case your skills are not challenged. So, suck in the pride, and acknowledge a bad taste is a warning sign.

When it comes to food borne illnesses the same rules apply. Respect your senses, if it tastes like trash, then trash it.

One that note, Cucurbits are beneficial to your health, so don’t throw them out unless they are showing signs of contamination, like tasting “off.” Cucurbits are an excellent source of Vitamin B6, C, E, Thiamin, Niacin, Potassium, Iron, and the list continues for longer than you’ll care to read. Did I mention they are a great source of Fiber? If you don’t care about your energy levels, than at least spare a thought to your digestive system and focus on that body-loving nutrient.

By. Heaven Bassett, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)