The Killer Tomato

It’s hard to imagine an omelet without tomatoes or a burger without ketchup. It seems obvious that with ketchup being a popular condiment, that tomatoes must’ve been a stable for centuries. However, fairly recently has the tomato made its appearance into our diets. In Europe, following the late Middle Ages, tomatoes were considered deadly and were associated with witchcraft. Even in the late 1700s, the majority of Europeans feared the tomato, thinking it was poisonous. 

PHOTO BY | Michael R. Shaughnessy

The tomato is not poisonous, but after many European aristocrats died after eating them, the tomato acquired the nickname “Poison Apple”. Reality was that aristocrats weren’t dying due to tomatoes, but rather due to their utensils of choice. The wealthy used pewter plates, which contained high amounts of lead. Tomatoes have a relatively high acidity, (approximately 3.5- 4.8), therefore when placed on pewter plates, the fruit would leech lead, from the plate, causing lead poisoning. Unable to splurge on trendy items, the lower classes used wooden plates, and were less susceptible to poisoning than the wealthy.

At that time, no speculations were made about the content of the plates, and the tomatoes were deemed so poisonous that even a small bite could bring about catastrophe.

Even before the led poisonings, the tomato was infamous in Europe. It was considered a part of the family of poisonous Solanaceae plants which consist of high amounts of toxins, called tropane alkaloids. The tomato was referred to as a “deadly nightshade”, and associated with the family.

Solanaceae Family

While many believe the conjecture about pewter plates, Atlas Obscura points out flaws in the story. He claims that pewter plates weren’t common enough, tomatoes aren’t acidic enough, and lead poisoning gathers too slowly to lead to a poisoning in a singular meal. Atlas Obscura also brings forth theories that the unsatisfactory image resulted from its correlation with witchcraft.

Around this time period in Europe, (14-17th centuries), witchcraft was the primary subject of discussion. Through the centuries, thousands of people were killed or excommunicated under mere suspicion. Stories circulated about creations of witches brews, poisons, and their “flying ointments”. A common myth was that witches put this ointment on their broomsticks. These ointments consisted of mandrake, nightshade, and hemlock. With two of these ingredients having close correspondence with tomatoes, people began associating the tomato with witches.

This stigma around tomatoes persisted for centuries, but with the surface of science and technology, the fear of witchcraft started to fade. While many European kingdoms denounced tomatoes, civilizations in South America continued to consume them. Around the 1850s tomatoes began to infiltrate markets and became a stable.

And finally with the invention of Pizza in Naples, the tomato made its way into the common diet and its mysterious past was forgotten.

Published by N

A high school student who is passionate about life sciences!

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