A health note on fiddleheads
Fiddleheads are the furled sprouts of young ferns. All fiddleheads carry the risk of causing food poisoning if eaten raw or if lightly cooked i.e. al dente. Additionally, fiddleheads contain varying levels of toxins and Bracken Ferns, in particular, contain carcinogens (cancer-causing compounds).
As a result, Health Canada has issued a warning to avoid raw and undercooked fiddleheads.1,2 Even Ostrich Ferns, which are considered non-toxic, should be cooked.
Signs of food poisoning from fiddleheads appear shortly after eating – usually within the hour. These signs include abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and most commonly noted, headache. If you experience these symptoms, you should follow the normal recommendations for food poisoning:
1. Stay well hydrated with water and rehydration salts, which will optimally maintain your water-salt-sugar balance. Avoid sugary drinks, which have too much carbohydrates. Rehydration salt packages and pre-made oral rehydration therapy (ORT) solutions are available at pharmacies. You can also make your own ORT solution from 1 cup fruit juice (e.g. apple), 1/2 tsp honey, 1/4 tsp baking soda and 1/8 tsp salt or 1 cup water, 2 tsp sugar and 1/4 tsp salt.3
2. Follow a BRAT diet for the duration of the food poisoning. A BRAT diet consists of Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast.
3. Avoid foods that cause dehydration or stomach upset including coffee, caffeinated tea, alcohol and dairy. Note that everyone responds differently, so avoiding these foods is person-specific.
4. Avoid heavy activities and activities that cause overheating and dehydration
5. Let the food poisoning run its course and avoid anti-diarrheal medications. Your body is trying to rid itself from the toxin and you should let it.
6. See the doctor if your symptoms persist for more than 3 days or if a high fever develops (oral temperature: 101.5⁰F or 36.8⁰C)
How to cook fiddleheads: wash fiddleheads very well in cold water, removing any brown papery bits or brown spots. I boil my fiddleheads for 10 minutes, which is slightly less than the Health Canada advisory of 15 minutes if boiling and 10 – 12 minutes if steaming. Don’t just sauté fiddleheads without boiling or steaming them 1st, since the heat will not be enough to destroy the toxins.
1. Health Canada. 1999. Food poisoning associated with the ingestion of fiddleheads. Accessed at http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/webarchives/20071221093730/http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/ccdr-rmtc/00vol26/dr2620ea.html on April 7, 2014
2. CDC. 1994. Ostrich Fern Poisoning — New York and Western Canada. Accessed at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00032588.htm on April 7, 2014.
3. Canadian Pharmacists Association. 2002. Patient self-care.
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