Kitchen Confidential

Recently, a tragic story was reported out of Kentucky.  A 4 year old boy got a hold of a mouthful of cinnamon, started coughing violently, and an hour and a half later was pronounced dead. From cinnamon. Yes. Cinnamon.

This incident prompted me to take a critical look around my own kitchen, and look more deeply into some potential risks that may exist in a typical cupboard, and come up with solutions to make your kitchen pantry safer.   Here’s a sampling of what I found.

PITS – cherries, apricots, peaches and apples all contain either seeds or kernels that have cyanide or cyanide producing chemicals within.  Clearly we don’t typically eat the seeds of stone fruit, but with many folks juicing with whole fruits, the potential for eating some of these seeds does exist.  Adventurous bakers may grind bitter apricot kernels (which resemble small almonds) to make amaretti cookies or liqueurs, and health food addicts may tout that the kernels within stone fruit pits prevent or treat cancer!

Our bodies are capable of neutralizing small amounts of cyanide; however, larger amounts overwhelm the body and can cause minor symptoms like headache, dizziness, confusion, and vomiting, and progress to shortness of breath, elevated blood pressure, fast heart rate, kidney failure, and death.

The solution: enjoy these beautiful fruits, but core your apples, and remove and discard all pits and seeds before eating!

CINNAMON – it’s the second most common seasoning (behind pepper) used in the USA. 

Cinnamon comes from the inner layer of bark derived from dozens of varieties of evergreen trees that belong to the genus Cinnamomum. When applied to moist surfaces (like the inside of the mouth or lungs) the cellulose within the bark essentially sops up all local moisture, including mucous that is essential for its removal, and causes asphyxiation at the level of the lung. Loose cinnamon ingested in even small amounts, is capable of catastrophic reactions, as was the case with the little boy in Kentucky.

Additionally, Cassia cinnamon (cheaper, used in most commercial applications) contains a compound called coumarin that is liver toxic. Although some tout the blood sugar lowering effects of cassia cinnamon as helpful in diabetics, cassia can also interact with antibiotics, diabetes drugs, blood thinners, cardiac medications, among others.

Saigon cinnamon, popular with gourmet chefs, contains the highest amounts of coumarin. 

The solution:  it’s best to measure what cinnamon is needed in a recipe, and keep it up and away from small children to avoid accidental ingestion. Ceylon has the least and is the safest alternative in the kitchen. Check with your doctor FIRST if you are contemplating using cinnamon for a health condition and discuss your options.

NUTMEG – it’s the seed of Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree native to the Molucca Islands. It’s use in baked goods, specialty cocktails and other cuisine is common in the US.  Nutmeg is sold as whole seeds (that require grating) or loosely ground.  It contains the chemical myristicin, which, if ingested  in amounts of just 0.2 oz (about 2 tsp ground) can cause convulsions, confusion, psychosis and seizures. Additionally, a whole or partially grated nutmeg also poses a huge choking risk if aspirated into the airway of a child or adult. The solution: It’s wise to not have piles of nutmeg within the reach of small children, and if perusing the open spice bins at the market, don’t let your kids reach in for a taste. Also, keep whole nutmeg in a sealed jar out of reach of small children AND pets.

EXTRACTS – the majority of flavoring extracts we use on a regular basis contain approximately 35% alcohol (that’s 70 proof, folks!). Alcohol is typically used in the manufacturing process to extract those volatile and delicious compounds that flavor our foods and drinks. Just like your bar contents, it’s wise to keep extracts up and out of reach of small children, especially since they don’t have child-proof caps.  If you are any medications that react with alcohol, even in small amounts, then be mindful that extracts could potentially cause a problem.  

The solution: purchase alcohol-free flavorings, or in the case of vanilla, vanilla powder (no alcohol). The cost may be more, but the risk, much less.

RAW UNPASTEURIZED HONEY – three risks exist.  Honey of any type can potentially cause botulism in children under the age of one year due to Clostridia botulina spores within the honey releasing botunlina toxin into the gut of babies.  Secondly, raw unpasteurized honey contains varying levels of pollen – those who use it for treatment of seasonal allergies may have unexpected adverse reactions if the pollen count in the honey is high. There is no requirement to disclose or quantifying this. And lastly, unpasteurized honey can contain grayonotoxins – compounds which can cause dizziness, weakness, nausea and vomiting in all age groups.  

The solution: buy pasteurized honey, and make sure to avoid giving any type of honey to children under one year of age.

GREEN SPROUTED POTATOES – we’ve all had them. Potatoes exposed to excessive light develop a green tinge (that’s chlorphyll), but more importantly that means the potato has accumulated solanine (a glycoalkaloid toxin) in greater amounts than are safe. Solanine is the potato’s defense system – keeping it alive in nature, and repelling those insects, diseases and predators that want to eat it.  If we were to eat green potatoes, we’d run the risk of nausea, cramping, diarrhea, or in the worst case scenario, coma and death.

The solution: keep potatoes in a cool dry place, discard green or sprouted potatoes (or cut those in half, and plant them!).

LOOSE BEANS, LENTILS, GRAINS, & NUTS – the beautiful and colorful, nutritious goodies we stock in our pantries can be a hazard for little ones. Countless times I have had to extract a swollen bean from the nose or ear of a little explorer cut loose in the kitchen. Worse yet, spilling the beans puts your little one at choking risk (also your animals).  Raw red beans can also cause GI upset (unless soaked for at least 5 hours in water).  

The solution: Bag up your fibre rich staples, and keep them out of reach of children.  If you literally do spill the beans, vacuum them up promptly!

Hopefully this small list of suggestions will get you on the road to a safer kitchen! Here's a link to the segment I did on Home & Family: