Recently I came across an interesting theory about why the combination of durian and alcohol sometimes appears to cause death. I’ve got my own theories, as I’ve already shared in my exploration Durian and Alcohol. But this was a new one to me.
The rumor – first reported on Pantip, a popular Thai forum and then shared here – states that durian contains something called anthocyanins, which when mixed with alcohol break down releasing deadly cyanide ions. As anyone who enjoys spy fiction should know, cyanide poisoning causes an immediate and extremely agonizing death.
Could durian be a suicide pill waiting to happen? Scary thought.
First off – what the fruit is anthocyanin? It sure does look related to “cyanide” – but is it? Or are they just devilish false cognates of the unfathomable periodic kind?
As I do for everything I’ve never heard of, I turned to Wikipedia. Turns out anthocyanins are a type of flavenoid, the most important anti-oxidant in fruit and vegetables. There are over 4,000 flavenoids, and doctors generally agree that they are very good for you. Some people even take flavenoid supplements, although the benefit (or toxicity) of that is debated.
Anthocyanins seem to be found in almost all plant materials, although in different quantities.There are about 300 different chemicals classed under the anthocyanin umbrella, including pelargonidin, petunidin, and the wicked sounding cyanidin.
Durian is apparently very high in anthocyanins. In two studies (linked to below) comparing the durian’s anthocyanin content to other tropical fruits like pineapple, mango, avocado, and even snakefruit, durian had by far more anthocyanins. Snakefruit, the second best, had about half the quantity of anthocyanins, with mango trailing at less than 1/8th the anthocyanin content of durian.
Another study found that the anthocyanin content varies between different durian cultivars. Of the five Thai cultivars studied, Kradum had the least amount of anthocyanins, while Monthong had the most. But the researcher’s conclusion wasn’t a condemnation of Monthong as a dangerous form of poison, but to affirm that “Therefore, durian cultivars, especially durian Mon Thong, Chani and Pung Manee can be used as a supplement for nutritional and healthy purposes.”
Could that be because anthocyanins are good for you until mixed with alcohol, whereupon it becomes death soup? Or that that you have the least chance of dying if you pick Kradum to match with your cocktail?
It’s hard to know how the two interact, because most flavenoids break down so fast in the digestive system that scientists don’t really have a clue what goes on down there. But what we can state with absolute, complete certainty is that mixing anthocyanins and alcohol definitely do not create free cyanide ions to wreak havoc on your system.
Here’s why: none of the anthocyanins contain even a trace of cyanide.
That’s right – it is an annoying scientific etymology trick after all. The word anthocyanin is only related to the word cyanide, not the poisonous substance itself. It all goes back to the Greek word “Kyanos” which simply means blue. That’s why cyanobacteria are just blue green algae, and having cyanosis means you’re really freaking cold and your lips (or other extremities) are turning blue.
Anthocyanins cause dark blue, red, or purple coloration in fruits and vegetables. They’re the reason purple cabbage, blackberries, blueberries, and mangosteen rinds are considered “superfoods” by the latest health fad. They’re also the reason POM can get away with selling those little hour glass bottles of pomegranate juice for such ridiculous prices.
In contrast to being a killer, anthocyanins actually protect from a lot of other unpleasant forms of death. Studies have linked anthocyanins to prevention of obesity and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and – most importantly – cancer. It appears that anthocyanins actually disrupt tumor formation, meaning that they may one day be used in cancer treatment as well as prevention. That’s a pretty darn cool reason/excuse to eat durian.
But wait – then shouldn’t durian be blue or purple? What’s going on?
|This would be really cool.|
Anthocyanins exhibit a wide range of colors depending on the pH of their host. This means that the color of a fruit is actually a litmus test for how acidic or neutral it is! Anthocyanins are pinkish in acidic solutions
According to a study done in Penang, durians have a slightly acidic pH ranging from about 4.5 – 5.9, which is about the same as rainwater. Fascinatingly, the study found that the pH of the durian varieties studied differed slightly. D11 was found to be the most acidic, at 4.5, while Ang Jin (a beautiful reddish durian) had the lowest pH, at nearly 6. It’s thanks to these differences in pH and the anthocyanin content that we get to enjoy the subtle pinks and oranges of lovely durians like Ang Bat, Kun Poh, and Ang Har.
In conclusion, mixing anthocyanins with alcohol does not cause death by cyanide poisoning. Why the combo-abombo of durian and alcohol sometimes kills is still a mystery, but we can safely say that anthocyanin content is not a problem. It’s a benefit.
So give yourself a pat on the back the next time you polish off a satisfying meal of this anti-oxidant rich, cancer preventing fruit! Go Durian!
- Antioxidant properties and bioactive constituents of some rare exotic Thai fruits andcomparison with conventional fruits. Food Research International, 2011.
- Study of Antioxidant Potential of Tropical Fruit. International Journal of Bioscience, Biochemistry and Bioinformatics. 2011
- Screening of the antioxidant and nutritional properties, phenolic contents and proteins of five durian cultivars. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 2008.
- Information on the health benefits of anthocyanins: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1082894/