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Beware of squashes containing poisonous
bitter compounds

Many members of the Cucurbitaceae family – which includes courgette, pumpkin and cucumber – contain bitter compounds. Especially the ornamental gourds and squashes sometimes have concentrations of bitter compounds are high enough to make you seriously ill or kill you – as a pensioner from Hildesheim found to his cost. The courgettes and pumpkins sold in our supermarkets have had the bitter substances cultivated out of them. Nonetheless it's important for hobby gardeners to be aware that mutations or crossbreeding with ornamental or wild-growing squash can reintroduce the toxic compounds into the next generation grown from saved seed. A pensioner from Hildesheim, Germany, recently died as a result of eating squash he'd grown himself. Read on for some suggestions about what you should watch out for.

How much risk do the bitter compounds pose?

Various sorts of melon, squash, courgettes and pumpkins are among the most popular vegetables eaten in Germany. In summer, melons and cucumber are cool and refreshing, baked squash grilled on the barbecue are. Many of them are capable of forming bitter compounds which can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Very high concentrations can kill you.
These toxic compounds have been bred out of the edible species that you'll find in supermarkets and vegetable shops. Although the responsible gene has been switched off, it is still there and can be reactivated either by spontaneous mutation or cross-pollination with wild or ornamental species. This risk is higher when hobby gardeners save and use their own seed.

Death by self-bred courgette

If hobby gardeners, for example, grow inedible, ornamental squash close to edible varieties, so that these are pollinated by the same pollinators. The result could be a mutation which again contains the bitter toxins. There might well be no visible difference. A pensioner from Hildesheim in Germany may well have died in consequence. The 79-year-old and his wife had made a stew using courgettes given them by a neighbour from his allotment. The man was taken to hospital with acute stomach pains and died soon after. The wife said the stew had tasted very bitter, so she had eaten only a little and had survived.


Supermarket vegetables have so far not been affected by this problem. All the cases reported involved home-grown courgettes or squash. One case in 2012 was investigated by the CVUA in Stuttgart. In the course of their investigations the researchers checked samples from a number of supermarkets. None of them showed any trace of bitter compounds.

Better safe than sorry

  •    Minimize the risk of cross-pollination. Don't plant edible and decorative squash too close together.
  •   Buy fresh every time seed. Don't collect and save seeds from squash you've grown yourself. That way you won't risk hybridization with inedible types.
  •   Taste cautiously before you tuck in. Taste your squashes/cucumbers, etc. before you start cooking with them – especially during or after very hot weather. Taste them without seasoning which could hide the bitter taste.
  •   Be aware of warning signals. Even if courgettes, squash, etc. look beautifully appetizing, if they have even a slightly bitter taste don't eat them. The CVUA in Stuttgart warns that people with impaired ability to taste bitterness are especially at risk. They should be especially carefully or ask someone else to taste on their behalf.


The bitter compounds are not destroyed by cooking. So you should bin even prepared dishes if they taste bitter. Vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps are signs to watch for. Small children, older people and people with impaired immune systems are most at risk, because the effects of the toxins can lead to life-threatening dehydration.

Source: Stiftung Warentest