People tend to have opinions when it comes to okra: Some dislike the vegetable's slimy texture while others extol its nutritional benefits. And then there's a third (but small) category: people who have an okra allergy.
This is a rare allergy, says Robert Wood, MD, director of pediatric allergy and immunology and chief of the Eudowood Division of Allergy and Immunology in the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
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In fact, if you search the World Health Organization's database of allergens for okra, no results turn up.
Here's what you need to know about okra allergies.
First, What Is Okra?
Okra is a non-starchy vegetable that grows in warm seasons in the southern United States, Africa and parts of Asia. It's a tall, upright plant with a hibiscus-like flower.
The immature seed pods are the edible part of the plant and are an important part of many Southern cuisine dishes, per Clemson University.
Can You Eat Raw Okra?
Okra Nutrition Facts
Is okra good for you? Yes — it's actually chockfull of essential nutrients like potassium, magnesium and calcium.
Okra also has antioxidants and helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, says Eric Ascher, DO, a family medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital. Plus, it's high in vitamins and minerals, he adds. It's even a food known to help with bad breath.
Here's a nutrient breakdown, per the USDA:
Okra (1-cup serving)
What Is an Okra Allergy?
1. Food Allergy
Okra allergies are a type of food allergy, but they are not very common.
"As with any food allergy, an allergy to okra means your immune system has produced IgE antibodies that will lead to allergic symptoms with ingestion," Dr. Wood says.
Let's unpack that a bit: Your immune system, of course, is your body's first defense against invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. But sometimes things go awry, and your immune system mounts defenses against something that's no enemy at all.
That's the case with food allergies. Your immune system creates antibodies called IgE (aka Immunoglobulin E), per Food Allergy Canada. The IgE antibodies then go on the move and lead to cells releasing chemicals known as histamines that cause allergic symptoms, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI).
The okra vegetable is in the mallow family (aka Malvaceae), and there are around 1,500 species in this family, per the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. That includes cocoa beans and durian, Dr. Ascher says. It also includes cottonseed, per Cox Health.
"Some people are allergic to one or more plants from this family and not all," Dr. Ascher says. This would be due to cross-reactivity — the substance in okra that pings your allergic response might do the same in a related food, such as durian.
Other Reactions to Okra
1. Skin rash: A food allergy, Dr. Wood notes, is different from contact sensitivity to okra, aka the effects that occur when you touch the veg.
"Okra commonly triggers localized rashes with direct contact," Dr. Wood says. That is, touching okra gives some people a rash. "Most people who have rashes with contact will be able to eat the food with no difficulty," Dr. Wood says.
2. Salicylate sensitivity: There's another issue that can lead to people feeling discomfort after eating okra.
"Okra is high in salicylates," Dr. Ascher says. Salicylates are found in many plants, per a March 2021 paper in Nutrients.
"Those who are sensitive to these compounds may have more stomach discomfort after eating it," Dr. Ascher says.
Symptoms of an Okra Allergy
"With a true allergy, all of the symptoms of an allergic reaction are possible," Dr. Wood says.
Even though you're having an allergic reaction to something you've eaten, it's not only your gastrointestinal system that may respond, per the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI). You may also experience the effects on your skin, cardiovascular system or respiratory tract, according to the ACAAI.
Or if you have oral allergy syndrome, you may experience tingling, numbness in and around your mouth and itching after eating okra, per the ACAAI.
An allergic reaction can lead to the following symptoms, according to Dr. Wood and the Mayo Clinic:
- Vomiting and abdominal pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Tingling sensation in the mouth
- Feeling dizzy or faint
In extreme cases, your allergic reaction may trigger anaphylaxis, which causes an array of life-threatening symptoms, such as tightening airways, a rapid pulse and shock, according to the Mayo Clinic. Seek medical help immediately if you have these symptoms.
How to Relieve Symptoms of an Okra Allergy
If you know you have an allergy to okra, avoid eating it, Dr. Ascher says.
You can, however, relieve the side effects of eating okra if you accidentally ingest it. Dr. Wood says "symptoms can be treated with antihistamines," such as Benadryl.
If you have a more serious reaction, epinephrine (also known as an EpiPen) may be needed, he says. Your doctor will let you know if you need to carry an EpiPen with you.
Diagnosing an Allergy
Typically, the way you'll know you have an okra allergy is based on how your body reacts after you eat it.
"I always tell my patients that the best way to diagnose if you are allergic to okra, or any other food that makes you feel uncomfortable, is to keep a strict food journal," Dr. Ascher says.
Note down foods that lead to discomfort or symptoms, he says. Then, try an elimination diet to see if eliminating the food stops the discomfort.
"If your allergy is more severe, you will likely be referred to an allergist for allergy testing," Dr. Ascher says.
An allergist will start by taking your history, asking you to share the symptoms that followed after eating okra, Dr. Wood says. "For most food allergies, skin testing or blood testing can be done to confirm or rule out the allergy," Dr. Wood says.
Because okra is less common, it's possible there isn't a commercially available test, Dr. Wood says. Your allergist will be able to do a skin test using the food itself in this case, he says.
Who Should Avoid Eating Okra?
There may be other reasons to avoid okra, aside from being allergic to it. Dr. Ascher shares a few:
- The presence of oxalates: Okra is high in oxalates, a compound found naturally in foods, per the National Kidney Foundation. In your urine, oxalates can bind to calcium, forming crystals that eventually grow into stones. There's nothing innately problematic about oxalates. But: "Calcium oxalates commonly promote kidney stone formation," Dr. Ascher says. If you've previously had a kidney stone, you'll want to limit eating high-oxalate foods and avoid others entirely, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
- Medication interference: For instance, if you have diabetes and take metformin, okra can interfere with the absorption of this medication, Dr. Ascher says. "If you are on a blood-thinning medication, like coumadin, it may counteract the ability for this medication to thin your blood appropriately," he says.
Other Side Effects of Okra
Other than an allergy, okra may cause stomach issues in people with irritable bowel syndrome as it's high in fructans — a natural sugar some people are sensitive to, per a January 2015 report in Current Gastroenterology Reports.
Okra also contains solanine, which has been associated with increased inflammation in people with arthritis (per the Arthritis Foundation), and calcium oxalate, which can contribute to the buildup of kidney stones in some people who've already had them, per the National Kidney Foundation.
Talk to your doctor if you're unsure if you can eat okra with an underlying medical condition.
A true okra allergy is rare, but it's possible to react to the vegetable in other ways, including getting a rash from touching it.
If you have an okra allergy or a suspected allergy, visit your doctor, who can refer you to an allergist.
You should also talk to your doctor about whether you can eat foods high in vitamin K (like okra) if you're taking certain medications such as blood thinners.
- World Health Organization: "ALLERGEN NOMENCLATURE"
- Food Allergy Canada: "What is food allergy"
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Allergic Reaction Defined"
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: "Malvaceae (mallow family)"
- Cox Health: "Possible Allergen Plant and Food Cross-Reactivity"
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Food Allergy"
- Mayo Clinic: "Food Allergy"
- National Kidney Foundation: "Calcium Oxalate Stones"
- USDA: "Okra, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt"
- ACAAI: "Oral Allergy Syndrome"
- Clemson University: "Okra"
- USDA: "Okra, raw"
- Beaumont Health: "Food of the Month: Okra"
- Michigan State University: "How to Grow Okra"
- Current Gastroenterology Report: "Dietary fructose intolerance, fructan intolerance and FODMAPs"
- Arthritis Foundation: "What You Should Know About Nightshades and Arthritis"
- Nutrients: "Effectiveness of Personalized Low Salicylate Diet in the Management of Salicylates Hypersensitive Patients: Interventional Study"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.