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The presence of nicotine and its metabolite cotinine in the body fluids of nonsmokers is usually taken as evidence of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied 800 people, both smokers and nonsmokers, all of whom tested positive for urinary cotinine1.

There is considerable evidence that nicotine is present in certain human foods, especially plants from the family Solanaceae (such as potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant). Castro and Monji,2Sheen,3 and Davis et al.4 have reported on the nicotine content of foods and drinks. We have been able to confirm some of their findings in our laboratory. Gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy5 were used to determine the nicotine and cotinine content of common vegetables and black tea available from a local supermarket. The vegetables analyzed were tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, and green peppers. They were thoroughly washed with tap water, as is done for human consumption. All the vegetables were treated in a similar manner so that any contamination from the tap water would be equally applicable. The vegetables (including their skins) were diced, pureed in a blender, prepared,4 and assayed 5.

Cotinine could not be detected in any of the samples. Measurable amounts of nicotine were found in some of the vegetables Nicotine Content of Common Vegetables.). Green peppers, black tea, and Ann Arbor city water had no detectable nicotine. Table 1 compares the results of the present study with those previously reported.

In indoor air, a low concentration of nicotine from tobacco smoke is about 1 μg per cubic meter. A person weighing 70 kg with a tidal volume of 4 ml per kilogram of body weight breathing 20 times per minute would exchange 5.6 liters of air per minute. If we assume that nicotine is completely absorbed from the lungs, it would take 179 minutes, or about 3 hours, of breathing in an environment with minimal smoke to absorb 1 μg of nicotine. Table 1 shows the amount of each vegetable by wet weight one would have to eat to obtain an amount of nicotine comparable to that of a passive smoker. Of course, the route of absorption is quite different in eating as compared with inhaling. Furthermore, if the vegetables are thoroughly cooked, the nicotine will diffuse into the cooking water and less will be ingested. It appears that the dietary intake of nicotine in nonsmokers may be of practical importance in the interpretation of the role of passive smoke inhalation when one is determining nicotine and cotinine levels in body fluids.

Edward F. Domino, M.D.
Erich Hornbach, B.A.
Tsenge Demana, Ph.D.
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

5 References

    1. 1

      Preliminary data: exposure of persons aged greater/equal 4 years to tobacco smoke -- United States, 1988-1991. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 1993;42:37-39

    1. 2

      Castro A, Monji N. Dietary nicotine and its significance in studies on tobacco smoking. Biochem Arch 1986;2:91-97

    1. 3

      Sheen SJ. Detection of nicotine in foods and plant materials. J Food Sci1988;53:1572-1573
      CrossRef | Web of Science

    1. 4

      Davis RA, Stiles MF, deBethizy JD, Reynolds JH. Dietary nicotine: a source of urinary cotinine. J Food Chem Toxicol 1991;29:821-827
      CrossRef | Web of Science | Medline

    2. 5  Domino EFHariharan MVanNoord TDemana T. Current experience with HPLC and GC-MS analyses of nicotine and cotinine. Med Sci Res 1992;20:859-860

Originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 1993. Original article can be found here.

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  • erica

    for reference:
    224g = 1 cup
    112g = 1/2 cup

    December 02, 2017