Plants in the Solanaceae family are called nightshades, and they include many of the vegetables and fruits we eat. But if you've been told to avoid nightshade vegetables, there are many alternatives that are both safe and nutritious.
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Nightshades all have solanine, a toxic alkaloid, per the Government of Canada. Alkaloids are naturally occurring chemicals that protect the plant from pests and mold. Some plants in the nightshade family are highly toxic (like belladonna), but many are common staples in a western diet, such as potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant.
Although most nightshade vegetables are rich in nutrients and considered safe to eat, some people find these foods worsen joint pain or migraines, or aggravate certain gastrointestinal symptoms. If you have a nightshade allergy or sensitivity, you may be advised to replace them in your diet with other nutritious alternatives.
Nightshade vegetables are considered safe to eat, although potatoes that are green have higher levels of solanine — a natural toxin — and should be avoided, according to the National Capital Poison Center.
Allergies to nightshades are rare, but some people may be sensitive to them. Research does not support a blanket restriction of nightshades for people with specific medical problems, but if you have a health condition that you suspect is worsened by eating them, talk to your doctor or dietitian to see if you should change your diet.
If you have a nightshade allergy or sensitivity, your doctor may ask you to eliminate them from your diet either permanently or for a given period of time. The most common nightshade vegetables we eat are:
- White potatoes
- Goji berries
- Bell peppers
- Cayenne peppers
- Chili peppers
Keep in mind that foods such as hot sauce, ketchup and spices made from ground peppers (except black and white pepper) are also nightshade foods.
List of Nightshade Alternatives
When you're eliminating nightshades from your diet, you might find it difficult to find alternatives for foods you eat all the time. Below, see some suggestions for swaps that are equally versatile and full of nutrients.
Alternatives to White Potatoes
Instead of white potatoes, try sweet potatoes and yams instead. Prepare sweet potato fries or chips. Or, you can make mashed, whipped or roasted sweet potatoes or yams.
Other root vegetables make great replacements for potatoes, such as winter squash, turnips, parsnips and rutabagas.
Cauliflower is another popular substitute for mashed potatoes. Just cook a head of cauliflower until soft and mash it with a bit of olive oil or butter and milk.
Pepper and Eggplant Alternatives
Celery can work well to replace sweet peppers in soups, stews and sauces. While celery doesn't have the heat that hot peppers provide, diced celery can add something green, cool and crunchy to your favorite salads.
Radishes are another alternative that offer a crunchy texture and peppery taste to uncooked dishes.
Portobello mushrooms make a great substitute for eggplant in recipes because they have a fleshy texture, which is ideal for dishes like lasagna and also works great on the grill.
To replace fresh tomatoes in your salads, consider adding grapes, strawberries, diced melon, olives or slices of apple or pear.
Alternatives to tomato sauce can be a bit more tricky, but with experimentation, you may find some you like. Try combining olive oil, onions, olives, garlic and wine, or use a pesto sauce instead.
Another alternative is a sauce made with vitamin-rich pumpkin or winter squash. Prepared it by simmering pureed pumpkin or squash with a bit of cream or milk, and adding spices such as cinnamon, allspice or any others you like. Just steer clear of cayenne pepper or derivatives of hot peppers.
Having a true nightshade allergy affects the immune system, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you have an allergy to nightshades, eating a small amount can trigger severe and even life-threatening symptoms.
When you are allergic to nightshade vegetables (or anything in general), your immune system creates antibodies to "attack" the allergen. When these antibodies enter the blood, it causes the production of histamine in the body, especially the lungs, skin and nasal passages, per Hopkins Medicine.
You can use an over-the-counter antihistamine to treat minor nightshade allergy symptoms, such as sneezing, watery eyes and hives.
Rhinitis and Asthma Symptoms
Common symptoms that can occur within minutes of eating nightshade vegetables are rhinitis and asthma, according to the National Library of Medicine. Rhinitis refers to inflammation in the sinuses, eyes and throat. This can cause symptoms like:
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Postnasal drip
- Sore throat
- Sneezing fits
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Wheezing (a high-pitched sound made by the opening of the throat being blocked by inflammation)
As with any food allergy, anaphylactic shock may occur. Anaphylaxis is a rare, severe allergic reaction that affects the entire body, per the National Library of Medicine.
Your blood pressure may suddenly drop, you may become dizzy, your throat may close causing restricted breathing and you may break out in hives.
If you suspect you're going into anaphylactic shock, call 911 immediately. An injection of epinephrine may be required to treat the symptoms.
Nightshade Sensitivity and Intolerance
Food allergies and sensitivities or intolerance are different things. Allergies cause a response in the immune system, while sensitivities and intolerance usually do not involve the immune system. An intolerance or sensitivity usually involves the body's inability to break down compounds in the offending food, leading to symptoms, per the Mayo Clinic.
If you have a nightshade sensitivity or intolerance, you may be able to eat small amounts of them without experiencing symptoms, but this varies from person to person.
For example, nightshades are rumored to promote inflammation, and people with joint pain, arthritis, migraines, autoimmune disorders and certain gastrointestinal illnesses, such as IBS or IBD, are sometimes advised to avoid them.
Large-scale medical evidence doesn't support these claims (yet), but some people have reported feeling better and experiencing fewer symptoms by avoiding nightshades in their diet, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Digestive symptoms are common if you have an intolerance or sensitivity to a food. Possible reactions include:
- Stomach cramping and abdominal pain
If you develop mucus or blood in your stool, talk to your doctor immediately.
Once the nightshade vegetables are eliminated from the body, symptoms typically subside. If they persist, another medical condition may need to be addressed.
- Today's Dietitian: Elimination Diet Protocols
- National Capital Poison Center: Are Sprouted Potatoes Safe to Eat?
- Cleveland Clinic: What’s the Deal With Nightshade Vegetables?
- Mayo Clinic: Food allergy vs. food intolerance: What's the difference?
- National Library of Medicine Medline Plus: Food Allergy
- Government of Canada: Glycoalkaloids in Foods