Is Lychee Safe For Kids?

Do lychees contain fatal toxins? Is consuming lychees dangerous for kids? What is hypoglycaemia? To answer all these questions and more, ParentCircle talks to experts to understand better.

By Monali Bordoloi

Is Lychee Safe For Kids?

Over the past few days newspapers and online media have been carrying disturbing stories of the tragic deaths of over 150 children in Muzaffarpur and neighbouring areas of Bihar. Reportedly, these children died after consuming lychees, a seasonal fruit of that region. The recent alarming reports have left parents of young children anguished across India. They are in a dilemma as several questions arise — Is lychee safe for kids? Does the lychee fruit come with any health benefits? What are the side effects of consuming this tropical fruit?  

Few experts are of the opinion that mix of factors like, heatwave, malnutrition, toxins in lychee, encephalitis and hypoglycaemia, are involved and played a role in this distressing situation. Back in 2014, Muzaffarpur witnessed several deaths of kids, and those fatalities too were linked to the consumption of lychee fruit. Hence, to address this situation, ParentCircle talks to two experts, Dr Sachin Bhise, paediatrician, Motherhood Hospital, Pune and Priya Kathpal, nutritionist and founder of Nutrify, to delve deeper into this grave issue. Let’s hear what these experts have to say, so that you can make an informed decision. We have also decoded some medical terms for your better understanding.

Excerpts from the talk:

Is consuming lychees dangerous for kids? 

Dr Sachin Bhise, Paediatrician: No, you and your child can still eat lychees. However, keep in mind that you should not eat or let your child eat lychees on an empty stomach. As it so happened in the tragic death of children in and around Muzaffarpur, those kids consumed lychees on an empty stomach which led to a drop in blood sugar levels and in turn led to brain fever and disorientation.

Priya Kathpal, Nutritionist: Lychees are high in nutrition with essential vitamin C. It is a powerhouse of minerals and boosts immunity too. It is also very hydrating. Lychee is the perfect fruit for a hot summer day, as it contains 90 per cent water content, thereby perfect for fighting dehydration. If your child is healthy, eats well, there is nothing to stop him from enjoying delicious lychees. As, there are health benefits to the lychee fruit.

However, as indicated by the Bihar tragedy, parents need to be vigilant about their child’s diet. Hence, avoid giving lychees on an empty stomach as the toxins present in the lychees could react negatively within their system.

What is your take on the tragedy in Muzaffarpur which is linked to consuming lychees?

Dr Sachin Bhise: Deaths during the yearly lychee harvesting time is not new for the area of Muzaffarpur. Cases of kids falling ill after consuming lychees have been reported since 1995. It would not be right to put the blame entirely on lychees. According to the official report, one of the main causes of these deaths is hypoglycemia or low blood sugar level. Coming from an underprivileged background, those little ones were malnourished. As the children consumed lychees on empty stomachs, a toxin named methylene cyclopropyl glycine (MCPG) present mostly in unripe lychees caused a sudden drop in blood sugar level and led to hypoglycaemia.

Priya Kathpal: The deaths of children in Muzaffarpur and neighbouring areas are really unfortunate. The children have presumably consumed lychees in large quantities and on empty stomachs, leading to serious complications. In fact, both ripe and unripe lychees can contain these toxins. The toxin basically lowers the sugar in the body by hampering the body’s natural mechanism to control the sugar levels. As the young ones were not well-fed, they didn’t have any reserve sugar. The sudden drop in the sugar level in the brain leads to fever, confusion, disorientation and in some cases even coma. All these factors together, sadly proved to be fatal for those children. However, if consumed rightly, you may enjoy its nutrition and health benefits. 

How many lychees can a child eat?

Dr Sachin Bhise: A child can eat as many lychees as she pleases, but make sure that the child is healthy otherwise and consumes a well-balanced and nutritious diet. The diet should cover all food groups.

Priya Kathpal: A child can safely eat about 3 to 4 lychees a day. However, avoid consuming lychees first thing in the morning and make sure your child or even adults do not eat lychees on empty tummies.

What advice would you like to give to parents?

Dr Sachin Bhise: We need to create awareness about healthy food, nutrition and diet for children of all age groups. 

Priya Kathpal: Parents need to keep a keen eye on their child’s diet. A child should always have regular healthy meals. Also, make sure that your child has regular intake of nutritious food.

Some medical terms decoded for you:

What is Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES)?

Dr Sachin explains that Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) is an inflammatory condition of the central nervous system. It affects some parts of the brain. There are many cases of viral AES. Some of the symptoms of these conditions are fever, headache, seizures and loss of coherence.

According to a research study done by a team of researchers from US and India, and published in the medical journal, The Lancet, states that, "Our investigation suggests an outbreak of acute encephalopathy in Muzaffarpur associated with both hypoglycin A and MCPG toxicity."

What is hypoglycaemia?

Dr Sachin says Hypoglycaemia is nothing but low blood glucose or low blood sugar levels. In general, we associate Hypoglycaemia with diabetes. But as the recent cases from Muzaffarpur show, it can happen to anyone, even to small children. Hypoglycaemia happens when the blood glucose level drops suddenly and goes below normal levels.

What is lychee?

According to Britannica, Lychee, (Litchi chinensis), also spelt as litchi or lichi, is an evergreen tree of the soapberry family (Sapindaceae) and is native to Southeast Asia. The sweet fruit is enjoyed best when eaten fresh. However, it can also be canned or dried before consumption.

What are the toxins found in lychees?

Priya says lychee is known to contain certain natural toxins, mostly in the seeds. This is also reported in a study published in 2017, in Lancet, a global health medical journal, about a natural fruit-based toxin, hypoglycin-A or methylene cyclopropyl glycine (MCPG) are being linked to the deaths of children in some places in Bihar.

Dr Sachin adds, one more fruit from the same family mostly found in African countries named Ackee is also known to contain toxins and infamous for causing an ailment named as ‘Jamaican Vomiting Disease’.

So, did you find our report on lychees insightful? We will continue to talk to experts on the topic. Please feel free to participate and share your thoughts with us. If you have further questions feel free to ask and we will get our experts to answer them for you.

Also read: Is It Safe For Kids To Eat Raw Vegetables?

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