A German man in Heidenheim has died two weeks after eating a home-grown zucchini, which had reverted through self-seeding to having a high-level of toxic cucurbitacin.
Both he and his wife had eaten a casserole containing the zucchini, reportedly given to them by a neighbour from her home garden. Although the woman recovered, the man later died. Cucurbitacin attacks the mucous lining of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to symptoms similar to an infection and, in severe poisoning cases, causes critical illness or death.
Although modern seed hybridising has bred the naturally-occurring toxin cucurbitacin out of cucumbers, pumpkins and squash it’s possible, through a rare mutation and back-crossing, for it to return. Home vegetable growers who repeatedly grow only their own collected seed run the risk of this occurring.
The toxin is very bitter, and originally protected the fruit from being eaten by animals and birds. Fortunately, humans can also taste the bitterness of cucurbitacin. Before you cook any cucurbits, such as zucchini, pumpkin, squash, and melons grown from home-collected seed, you should try a very small piece of the raw fruit to test for bitterness. If it’s bitter DON’T eat it or cook it, as the toxin is NOT removed by cooking.
Sadly, the man who died reported that the casserole had tasted very bitter but he had eaten it anyway. His wife, who survived, had eaten only a small amount. Cucurbitacin is also toxic to animals and birds, including chickens.