Fiddlehead Ferns: Friend or Foe?

The hidden danger lurking in the vegetable crisper
flickr/libraryman Ostrich fiddlehead

To eat or not to eat? That is the question that confronts not just adventurous eaters, but anyone who is considering whether or not to try, say, shrimp, for the first time, or for a more adventurous example, grasshoppers or durian. Some people might just take the "hey, you only live once" approach, make the leap without thinking much about it, and happily plop it in their mouth and munch away, while others might be more circumspect, thinking about whether they know anyone else who has eaten the food in question and weighing the risks against possible benefits.

Such may be the case with fiddlehead fern. With spring well underway, there's a good chance (depending on where one lives) that these have popped up at the local farmers market, in menus at fine restaurants, at the grocery store, or even in the backyard by now. And it's natural to wonder, for those who have never tried them — what do these funny-looking plants taste like? And, what can I do with them?

Their flavor is often compared to asparagus with a hint of nuttiness and a chewy texture, and blanched and sautéed in a little olive oil or butter, they're delicious all on their own, worked into an omelette, or tossed into a light, spring vegetable pasta dish. They're also a central component in Korean and Japanese cuisine, an essential part of iconic dishes like bibimbap. (Photo courtesy of Hyosun Ro)

And they're a great way to work some more vitamin A and C into the diet, as well as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium. They are also a significant source of protein, containing about four and a half times the amount of protein per serving than that of similar green vegetables, as well as a good source of iron, a boon for vegetarians who need a good meatless source of iron but are tired of spinach and kale.

But the most important question may not occur to most people: Are they safe to eat? (That is, unless, they find themselves foraging in the forest. But if that is the case, we shall assume that one is already well-informed or accompanied by a well-informed friend.) Because although the ferns are somewhat strange in appearance, even otherworldly, they are, after all, still just vegetables for sale. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, depending on where the ferns come from, they might contain ptaquiloside, a known carcinogen which primarily targets DNA. And that may be enough to make most people drop the fork and walk away. Clearly, it's just not worth it.

But let's back up a second. This isn't to say that all types of fiddlehead fern cause cancer, or that consuming them occasionally will necessarily lead to cancer. In North America, there are actually two types of fiddlehead fern commonly sold: ostrich fiddleheads and bracken fiddleheads.

Ostrich fiddleheads are commonly found along the East Coast, stretching from as far as Virginia all the up through Canada. Their season runs from April through July, depending on the region, and they look a lot like the end of well, a fiddle, only bright green and with tightly curled little fronds in the center. (Photo courtesy of flickr/thelxepeiakat)

Bracken fiddleheads are found on the West Coast, and also commonly in Korea and Japan, where they are a major component of the diet. They have multiple smaller, curled fronds that many compare to "eagle's talons." (Photo courtesy of Tom Wachtel)

The focus in academic circles has been on bracken fiddleheads, which have been shown to contain ptaquiloside in significant concentration. A study published in the British Journal of Cancer showed a possible link between consumption of bracken fern and the development of bladder and intestinal cancer in cattle. And several years earlier, in a study conducted by Japanese scientists published in the Journal of National Cancer Institute, rats given a steady diet of ptaquiloside solution developed tumors. Lastly, although they did not demonstrate a direct link of bracken fern consumption and the development of cancer in humans, a study conducted by another group of scientists suggested that eating bracken ferns could increase the risk of developing cancer of the esophagus, and in a more recent study, gastrointestinal cancer.

But, here's the thing: ptaquiloside is water soluble. So chances are, a good long soak in a bowl of ice water will reduce the amount of the compound present. And, the compound is volatile, meaning it breaks down easily when exposed to high temperatures, say when boiled. So, there's hope yet. (Photo courtesy of flickr/Pictoscribe - Home again)

What about eating the other variety? While it doesn’t seem like there's much (if any) noise being made out there linking consumption of ostrich fiddleheads to cancer, public health officials have noted that consumption of raw or undercooked ostrich fiddleheads could lead to various stomach problems within 12 hours, including nausea, vomiting, and cramps. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following two outbreaks of food poisoning due to consumption of ostrich fiddleheads in various restaurants in New York State and Western Canada found that most cases were due to undercooked fiddleheads. Thus, cooking ostrich fiddleheads thoroughly would seem to reduce the risk of any adverse symptoms.

So no matter which variety is available, it's definitely a good idea to wash, soak, and cook them thoroughly. This means boiling them for about 10 minutes and then sautéing them, or steaming them for the same amount of time. So the evidence has been presented. Now the question remains. The fiddlehead fern — is it friend or foe?

On the one hand, there seems to be an awful lot of damning reasons not to eat either type of fern. On the other hand, one could argue that if consumed in moderation, and cooked properly, it would seem like a delicious way to work some essential nutrients into one's diet.

And, in the case for bracken ferns, there are other foods we eat occasionally that also contain known carcinogens or other toxins — charbroiled hamburgers, cured meats, and produce sprayed with various pesticides — that many people haven't stopped eating just because of their cancer-causing potential.

After all, every day we are subject to all kinds of carcinogens from the environment — automobile exhaust, secondhand smoke, VOC's, etc. — not just in the foods we consume. And, it is unlikely that one will want to eat fiddlehead ferns every single day of spring. The key would be moderation. Ultimately, however, the choice is up to you.

Click here to see the Cream-Poached Halibut Cheeks with Spring Vegetable Medley.

Click here to see the Grilled Shrimp and Fiddlehead Spring Salad.

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