Although they may sound like something out of a fantasy novel, nightshades are actually a family of flowering plants, most of which are vegetables. It’s not clear exactly how nightshades got their ominous name, but it may be because some of the plants will bloom in the shade. Many of them are used in cooking, and although they do have many redeeming health properties, they also can potentially be harmful to your health. It’s important to be aware of what nightshades are and the potential downsides so that you can choose to limit your consumption if you wish.
There are over 200 different plants in the nightshade family. Some of the most common ones that we know and use in cooking are tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, and eggplant. Some types of potatoes are part of the nightshade family, but not all potatoes are (for example, sweet potatoes are not part of this family). Some more obscure plants that are members of this family include goji berries, pimentos, and paprika, and the tobacco plant to name a few.
The reason that nightshades are potentially problematic for your health is that they are very high in glycoalkaloids, mainly the glycoalkaloid solanine. What many people don’t realize is that overconsumption of these compounds can be poisonous to anyone (although you would have to eat an extreme number of nightshades for this to happen). Because of this, there are concerns that over time, these compounds may build up in your system and cause health problems.
The biggest reason many people choose to avoid nightshades is that they can lead to inflammation. In particular, they can irritate the joints of those who have arthritis. Arthritis inflammation can limit movement and make seemingly normal activities feel very uncomfortable. Some people also experience nightshade intolerance. The results of nightshade intolerance are similar to any other allergic reaction. For these people, consuming nightshades can lead to a variety of unpleasant symptoms. These include skin symptoms, like hives, itchiness, and a rash, as well as nausea and vomiting. They may also experience achiness and inflammation in the joints and muscles. If you notice these symptoms after consuming items like tomatoes or peppers, you should talk to your doctor to learn more about nightshade intolerance.
It’s important to keep in mind that there is still more research to be done on this topic. There haven’t been many concrete scientific studies on the adverse effects of nightshades on our health. However, it’s always best to be informed about the potential risks so that you can choose for yourself what you’re comfortable with putting in your body or not. When cooking with spices or vegetables, you should look up whether or not the plants are part of the nightshade family so you can decide whether you want to use them or substitute them out for something else. Keep in mind that if something is labeled ‘spice’ without going into further detail, there is a very good chance it does contain nightshades.