Animal IQ

Pufferfish Are Incredibly Poisonous, So Why Do People Eat Them?

The pufferfish is considered the second most poisonous vertebrate on Earth. (First prize goes to the tiny golden poison frog of Colombia). And yet, its flesh is considered a delicacy in certain parts of the world. Why would someone take such a risk for a meal?

Related Video: Divers Encounter a Puffed-Up Pufferfish

It Starts With Your Lips

The toxin responsible for pufferfish's deadly character is called tetrodotoxin. It's actually produced by bacteria that live inside the fish, a bit like the way the bacteria in your gut produce all sorts of smelly substances. It's found in the pufferfish's skin, its liver, and its reproductive organs. One pufferfish has enough tetrodotoxin to kill 30 people. Tetrodotoxin is a neurotoxin, which means it attacks your nervous system, specifically by interfering with the signals from your nerves to your muscles.

According to the CDC, the first stage of pufferfish poisoning is a prickling sensation in your lips and tongue, followed soon after by numbness and paralysis in your entire face. Next, the toxin moves to your extremities, and then further into your body. Once it reaches your respiratory muscles, it becomes difficult and then impossible to breathe. At that point, you're a goner. How long it takes to die can vary from as much as 24 hours after exposure to as little as 20 minutes. What we're saying is that this is very, very dangerous stuff.

Fugu, the Japanese word for pufferfish.

Who's Afraid of Fugu?

All that danger, and yet the flesh of the pufferfish is served in high-end restaurants throughout the world. People must train for two years before they can call themselves fugu chefs, and even with all that training, five people a year die from eating the stuff. Why do they do it? Well, for one thing, it's reportedly delicious. But it turns out that flavor with a side of death isn't the only thrill this fish imparts. Small doses of neurotoxins have been known to create a feeling of euphoria. Is that worth the risk?

Luckily, modern science is coming to the rescue. In January 2019, researchers announced in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that they had identified the major compounds that create the delectable taste of pufferfish. The scientists processed the meat until they had a liquid pufferfish extract, then analyzed that substance to find 28 potential flavor compounds. Finally, they performed taste tests with trained panelists to find that 12 of these compounds had the right umami, or savory, and kokumi, or "mouthfulness," qualities to successfully simulate the flavor of pufferfish. Perhaps one day we can all experience the deliciousness of this fish without the deadly side effects.

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For more scientific answers to food-related questions, check out "Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell?: Fascinating Food Trivia Explained with Science" by Andy Brunning. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer June 24, 2017

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