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Scientists Warn Against Eating Toxic Legume That Resembles Red Lentils

September 30, 1992

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ A cattle food that is being promoted for human consumption contains high amounts of nerve poison and may be dangerous, according to an article published Wednesday in Nature magazine.

Plant scientists Max Tate and Dick Enneking from the University of Adelaide’s Waite Agricultural Research Institute warn that people should not eat Victa sativa, more commonly known as Blanche Fleur Vetch.

Blanche Fleur, which looks like red lentils after it is hulled, has been sold as cattle feed since the 1950s and only recently been promoted as a source of protein for humans.

The Grains Council of Australia has taken the stand that on-going research shows Blanche Fleur can be made safe if soaked in water. Water releases 90 percent of the legume’s toxins and should be discarded before cooking.

But Tate told The Associated Press by telephone Wednesday that not all poisons are released by soaking and the danger of these to humans is largely unknown.

No deaths or serious incidents had been reported in connection with human consumption of the legume, he said.

″More research has to be done,″ Tate said. ″We simply do not know what the cumulative effects might be.″

Tate and Enneking’s article included research that found young chickens died after eating non-soaked Blanche Fleur for one week. Consumption had retarded growth of rats and had proved poisonous to some other animals.

Australia exported almost 10,000 tons of Blanche Fleur in 1990-91. Dehulled grains went to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Oman, Jordan and Egypt. The unprocessed legume was shipped to the United States, Portugal, Italy, Spain, South Africa and Austria.

In their article, Tate and Enneking said the legume contains poisonous amino acids, beta-cyanoalanine and gamma-glutamine.

They warned dehulled Blanche Fleur grains look similar to non-toxic red lentils, a staple food in many developing countries, which does not need to be soaked for safe eating.

Many Blanche Fleur shipments have been labeled as ″split red legumes″ or ″red dhal″ at the request of foreign buyers. This raises concerns for consumers, such as those with limited water supplies, who unwittingly do not take precautions, they said.

″Red lentils frequently have only sufficient water added to produce the final desired consistency, thereby retaining as many minerals and vitamins as possible,″ the article said.

″With a red lentil mimic such as Blanche Fleur this practice would inevitably result in higher consumption of neurotoxins,″ it said.

Tate said the legume should be restricted to cattle feed while work was done to produce a non-toxic variety.

Meantime, a government official, who asked not to be identified, said customs and quarantine authorities, which look after food exports, are investigating the scientists’ claims.

The Grains Council said Wednesday that the claims against Blanche Fleur are ″alarmist and unbalanced suppositions″ and based on old research.

″Blanche Fleur Vetch is a grain legume which produces an edible seed that competes with other legumes as a high source of protein suitable for human consumption,″ Allan McCallam, the chairman of the council’s grain committee, said in a statement.

McCallam said that following the scientists’ warning the council and the Australian government have sponsored research into Blanche Fleur Vetch.

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