Some nightshades are easy to avoid: it should be obvious that you’re not going to find a nightshade free tomato ketchup or chili sauce. But nightshades can hide in surprising places, and they are not always identified on the ingredient label. Entire families of foodstuff may contain nightshades and you have no way to know. (See: mustards, processed meats, imitation meats, and salad dressings.)
Under US food labeling laws, the 8 most common allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybean) must be listed. That helps to protect about 90 percent of those with food allergies.
But what if you’re allergic to something that isn’t listed? For example, sesame is the 9th most common food allergen in the U.S. In Canada and Europe, sesame must be listed as an ingredient. But under current U.S. regulations, small amounts of sesame can be legally listed under “natural flavor.” Advocacy groups have been trying for years to get sesame listed as an allergen to protect the more than 300,000 people estimated to have sesame allergies.
Now imagine that your food problem is not precisely an allergy. Food allergies and food sensitivities are on the rise. Food allergy is “rising for unclear reasons, with prevalence estimates in the developed world approaching 10%.”1 Food sensitivity, more common but not as well understood, may affect 15–20% of the population.2
The conclusion is simple: food labeling laws are insufficient to inform and protect a significant proportion of the population.
Hopefully there will come a time when food labeling laws require full disclosure. Until then, avoiding nightshades in food requires some effort, along with understanding the gaps in the labeling laws.
This is complicated because in small quantities some ingredients qualify for trade secret protection, and can be listed only as spices, flavors, or colors. And you will be frustrated, as much of the time you’re going to have to make decisions based on insufficient information.
There’s no sugar coating it: it’s an ongoing pain in the ass. If you’re avoiding nightshades, this is what you need to be on the lookout for:
CLEAR AND OBVIOUS NIGHTSHADES
Tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, bell or salad peppers (green, red, yellow, orange, purple, etc.), all chiles, goji berries, tomatillos, ground cherries, pepino melons.
For a more complete explanation of the historical and botanical complexity in spice naming, see: Pepper (Disambiguation)
If the label just says simply PEPPER, you should be okay. Round table pepper (black, white, green) is all from the same plant and is not a nightshade. The pink peppercorns in ‘festival’ or ‘medley’ blends are a different species, but are also not a nightshade. (Pink peppercorns ARE related to cashews, so those with a tree nut allergy should be wary.3 )
Sichuan pepper—also spelled Szechwan, Szechuan, or prickly ash—is also not a nightshade. However, its primary culinary use is in tandem with nightshade peppers.
Chile (Spanish spelling), chili (American English spelling), or chilli (Indian spelling) is a different story. These are all nightshades, varieties of four species from the Capsicum genus. In ingredient lists at the grocery store you’ll most commonly encounter: Green pepper, Red pepper, Cracked Red pepper, Paprika, Jalapeño, Cayenne, and Chipotle.
The actual cast of characters is much larger. Chili peppers don’t always retain the ‘chili’ part of their name, and there are easily hundreds of botanical variants and many more local names. A partial list: Aji Amarillo, Aji Mirasol, Aji Panca, Aji Paprika, Aleppo, Ancho, Birds Eye, Bonney, Bhut Jolokia, Caribbean Red, Cascabel, Cayenne, Chile de árbol, Chiltepin, Chipotle, Costeno Rojo, GuAjillo, Habenero, Italian Green, Jalepeno, Japones, Naga Mircha, Mora, Morita, Mulato, Green & Red New Mexico, Nora, Red, Pasilla, Pasilla de Oaxaca, Pepperoncino, Pequin, Pulla, Scorpion, Scotch Bonnet, Tepin, Thai, Urfa Biber, Wiri Wiri. (Again, this is not a complete list!)
NOT SO OBVIOUS NIGHTSHADES
paprika oleoresin: A coloring derived from paprika, paprika oleoresin is common in snack foods and in processed orange cheeses (like American and Velveeta). It can be used in any red or orange product—including organic toaster pastries to imitation crab meat. If you’re hoping to substitute sweet potato fries for regular french fries, you’re going to be disappointed: most of them use paprika oleoresin to assure a uniformly vivid orange.
potato starch: used in lunch meat, meat substitutes, pastry frosting, and to keep pre-grated cheese from clumping
Spices: For many products, it’s legal to protect your trade secret spicing as long as the spices and flavorings remain below a certain percentage of the product.
Flavorings: Flavor science is a fascinating branch of food science with both amazing and unsettling implications. Decades of research have helped to parse molecules with flavor superpowers—where just a sprinkling of the molecule in its purest form packs a powerful flavor punch. The challenge this presents to the nightshade sensitive is three-fold: First, we don’t yet know what triggers nightshade sensitivity, so we can’t be certain what chemical products of the nightshade we need to avoid. Second, the food industry is not required to disclose which flavors are used, or the plant of origin. Third, because flavor is ultimately a composite of more than one flavor, it’s possible to decide to not worry about the cucumber flavor, while not understanding that it’s being provided by stock derived from green pepper. Taste is not always a good source of information.
Food starch & Modified food starch: Potato starch is one of the three most common food starches. If starch source is not identified, it may be potato starch.
WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW MIGHT HURT YOU
Finally, it’s not uncommon to find products that use the following dodge:
“may contain less than 2% of the following ….”
I understand the business case for this label: there are food processes where certain ingredients can flexibly be substituted one for the other. It’s cheaper from a packaging and regulatory perspective. But if you’re nightshade sensitive, it’s a maddening thing to encounter, particularly since many of the included ingredients here are spices and starches.