Nutmeg, if consumed in large enough quantities, can have
powerful psychoactive effects providing a type of intoxication
similar to the combination of alcohol and marijuana. Scientific
studies show that ginseng is a safe and easy way to boost energy
and some varieties such as Korean Red ginseng can so affect the
levels of nitric acid in the body that it can increase blood flow
including in the vaginal tissues resulting in enhanced sexual
pleasure for women. Eating just two pieces of poppy seed cake will
produce a positive result in drug tests as morphine will be
detected in urine; repeated consumption of poppy seed tea can lead
to morphine tolerance, dependence and finally addiction.
Consumption of various species of fish can provide powerful
hallucinations similar to LSD. While some of the 500 natural
chemicals in a single piece of chocolate may have a psychotic
effect on humans, the current state of the science is inadequate to
support chocolate's aphrodisiac claims. These are just a small
sample of the many interesting insights contained in Professor
Massimo Marcone's latest book, The Psychopharmacology of Legal
Psychoactive Foods (Nelson, 2014).
While modifiers of consciousness such as morphine are regulated
by governments, society permits its citizens, whether by
legislation or default, to use legal psychoactive substances such
as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. As it turns out, many other
common and legal foods can also have major psychoactive effects. As
in his earlier book, Marcone, a University of Guelph food chemist,
explains in layman's language the science of how so many common
foods that contain chemicals that can cross the blood-brain barrier
can produce profound effects on our central nervous system.
Marcone tells the story of Vin Mariani, a Bordeaux wine
containing both cocaine from coca leaves and caffeine from kola
nuts, a beverage that became so popular at the turn of the 20th
century that it was strongly endorsed by Pope Leo XIII, Pope Saint
Pius X, and U.S. President William McKinley. It was widely used by
such notables as Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, H.G. Wells, Jules
Verne and Queen Victoria. All major opera singers of the time used
this "tonic," as did the kings of Norway and Sweden.
Widely recognized as the precursor to John Pemberton's Coca
Cola, millions of bottles of Vin Mariani were sold before the U.S.
banned cocaine in 1914.
Marcone devotes a chapter to the fascinating history and
chemistry of the once highly popular absinthe, an alcohol distilled
from wormwood, green anise and fennel. When consumed in large
quantities, absinthe produces profound hallucinogenic effects
because it contains the chemical thujone, which is similar to the
THC found in cannabis. His chapter on the chemistry of chili
peppers, our second most popular spice, reviews their remarkable
endorphin-producing capability and concludes that chili
peppers have significant medicinal potential.
Apologies to the Eurythmics aside, what's this about sweet
dreams and cheese? Most varieties of cheese, including Stilton,
Danish Blue, and aged Cheddar, contain a chemical called tyramine
which acts as a dopamine. This causes the release of another
chemical (norepinephrine) that increases the amount of time that is
spent in deep sleep. Cheese also contains high levels of the
relaxant tryptophan, which contributes to a natural high. Moreover,
the bacterial and fungal cultures in ripe cheeses produce large
amounts of biogenic amines with high psychoactive properties.
According to the science summarized by Marcone, really vivid dreams
can be induced by consuming a mere 20g just before bedtime. A 2005
study commissioned by the British Cheese Board revealed that
blue veined cheeses such as Stilton can produce particularly
powerful and bizarre dreams. My own study conducted with a group of
friends provides rich anecdotal data for the effect of Stilton
cheese on sleep.
Most food chemistry articles are either turgid academic papers
inaccessible to lay readers or the superficial pap that passes as
"scientific" writing in the popular press. Again, my
friend Massimo has found a way to make food chemistry interesting
without compromising good science. We need more of this.
This article originally appeared in Food in Canada
and is republished with the permission of the
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