Nightshades are plants that contain solanine and other alkaloids, which are naturally occurring chemicals that protect the plant from pests and mold. Most plants in the nightshade family are trees, shrubs, vines and other flowering, inedible plants -- some of which are highly toxic -- but several commonly-consumed vegetables are also nightshades.
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Although nightshade vegetables are rich in nutrients and safe to eat, some people find these foods worsen joint pain or migraines, or aggravate certain gastrointestinal symptoms. If you have sensitivities to nightshades, try avoiding nightshade foods and replacing with healthful alternatives. .
Common nightshade foods include white potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, eggplant, ground cayenne pepper and hot sauce. These nightshades are rumored to promote joint pain or inflammation, and thought to be problematic foods for people with arthritis, migraines, autoimmune disorders and certain gastrointestinal illnesses. However, medical evidence does not support these claims. Nonetheless, if you suspect you are sensitive to nightshades, you can try eliminating these foods from your diet for a few weeks to assess if your symptoms improve.
Instead of white potatoes, try alternatives include sweet potatoes and yams. Prepare sweet potato fries or chips instead of the traditional white potato versions, or serve mashed, whipped or roasted sweet potatoes or yams. Other root vegetable choices include winter squash, turnips, parsnips and rutabagas. Cauliflower is another popular substitute for mashed potatoes, as mashing well-cooked cauliflower with a bit of olive oil or butter and milk yields a texture surprisingly similar to the real thing.
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 provide something green, cool and crunchy to your favorite salads. Radishes are another alternative that brings a crunchy texture and peppery taste to uncooked dishes. Portobello mushrooms makes a great substitute for eggplant, since this mushroom has a fleshy texture which is ideal for lasagna and works great on the grill.
To replace fresh tomatoes in your fresh salads, consider adding grapes, strawberries, diced melon, 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 olive oil, onions, olives, garlic and wine, or use a pesto sauce. Another alternative is a sauce made with vitamin-rich pumpkin or winter squash, prepared by simmering pureed pumpkin or squash with a bit of cream or milk, and adding spices such as cinnamon, allspice or other desired flavors. Outside of cayenne pepper or derivatives of hot peppers, any of your favorite spices can work.
Nightshade vegetables are considered safe to eat, although potatoes that are green have higher levels of solanine and should be avoided to reduce dietary intake of this natural toxin. Research does not support a blanket restriction of nightshades for people with any medical problems, so if you have a health condition that you suspect is worsened by consuming nightshade vegetables, be sure to communicate this concern with your doctor and understand all of your treatment options for this condition.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD