Why Tomatoes Were Once Considered Poisonous

The poor tomato has really suffered a defamation of character in previous centuries. This red fruit has had a rather polarizing history — tomatoes have been mischaracterized, misaligned, mishandled, misunderstood, and the list goes on. Luckily, all those negative vibes haven't impacted our current consumption of these nutrient-rich foods. In fact, Statista shares that people in the U.S. ate a little more than 19 pounds per person in 2020. But if you are a tomato lover, it might be difficult to believe that the incredible demand for tomatoes that is the current norm has not always been the case. 

According to the Modern Farmer, while we might love slices of a firm and juicy tomato on our Caprese sandwich, tossed in our favorite salads, or sprinkled on top of our tacos, tomatoes were once thought to be too "watery," "tough," and even "poisonous." Even today, the article explains there are people who are under the false assumption the tomato's leaves and stem are toxic. 

Where did all these misconceptions about the tomato originate? Smithsonian Magazine says we can trace the haters, rumors, and innuendos back to Europe and the 18th century when tomatoes were thought to be dangerous and even deadly. Moreover, the outlet explains the tomato's moniker was "poison apple" among the affluent. If you are having flashbacks to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," we are with you.

Blame it on pewter

But Smithsonian Magazine explains this nickname was a result of the well-heeled getting sick and dying after eating tomatoes off of pewter plates, a luxury reserved for the wealthy in those times. SILive.com notes that early pewter was made with a high content of lead, which we now know is poisonous. The chemical would "leach" or drain away onto the spoons, forks, and knives people ate with, causing them to become deeply sick, many to the point of death. 

So how did the tomato become a cursed food? Smithsonian Magazine further details how the acidity of the tomato reacted with and absorbed the lead, causing the chemical to contaminate the fruit. Needless to say, people punished the fruit after many of them ate tomatoes with pewter plates and utensils and then died. In fact, before the fruit even came to the United States, it was labeled as a deadly nightshade. Tomatoes couldn't catch a break.

Misinformation continued to spread throughout Britain and over to America, which didn't make the tomato any more attractive for about 200 years. And there was even one researcher who tried to pin all the tomato woes on a worm, claiming its saliva could cause death. Luckily, a man by the name of Benjamin Walsh came along and dispelled all of these silly notions, Smithsonian Magazine writes. By the mid-1800s and moving forward, tomatoes found some positive footing and their popularity has soared ever since.