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What is lathyrism ?

Lathyrism is the disease caused by a toxin from the peas of the genus Lathyrus . Lathyrism causes paralysis in the legs in susceptible individuals and is believed to be caused by a toxic amino acid derivative BOAA (beta-(N)-oxalyl-amino-L-alanine acid) . The toxin is only found in the peas of certain Lathyrus species (L. sativus , L. cicera , L. clymenun), which are not edible. Edible peas and beans are of the genera Cicer, Glycine, Phaseolus, Pisum and Vigna. They do not contain the toxin.

Non-edible peas of the genus Lathyrus include sweet peas, which are ornamentals grown for their scented flowers.

Once prevalent throughout Europe, N. Africa, Middle East and parts of the Far East, the disease is presently restricted to India, Bangladesh and Ethiopia . In these regions, where food is often scarce, some people have resorted to eating a non-edible pea known as the chickling pea (Lathyrus sativus). The chickling pea is unfortunately often confused with the edible and widely used chickpea (Cicer arietinum). Outbreaks of lathyrism in India have been blamed on eating large amounts of the non-edible chickpea without proper cooking. Well-cooked, it is safe to eat as cooking destroys the toxin.

Reference : Neurobehav Toxicol Teratol. 1983 Nov-Dec;5(6):625-9 is an initiative of Stichting Food-Info, The Netherlands

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