If you’ve ever experienced an allergic reaction like itching, watery eyes, sneezing or hives, then you’re familiar with histamine, the compound that’s released as part of the body’s immune response in reaction to foreign invaders like pollen and dust. Histamine is also found in foods in varying amounts. Most people can break down dietary histamine, but some don’t have enough of the required enzyme. If you're one of these people, eating too many histamine-containing foods can cause allergylike reactions. You may want to stick to low-histamine foods and consult with a registered dietitian due to the complicated nature of the diet.
Histamine increases in most food as it matures or ripens. Fresh meats, chicken, fish, eggs and produce in general have lower histamine levels than pickled foods like sauerkraut, smoked and processed meats like sausages or bacon, aged cheeses, or canned foods. To minimize any formation of histamine in foods, it’s best to eat fruits and vegetables when they’re freshest, and keep all perishable foods refrigerated and use them quickly.
Most fresh vegetables and fruits are low in histamine and safe to eat on a histamine-restricted diet. Good vegetable choices include asparagus, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, green beans and lettuce. Fruits lowest in histamine include apples, blueberries, cherries, grapes, nectarines and peaches.
Fresh, soft cheese that hasn’t been aged and is made with pasteurized milk is lowest in histamine. Good choices on a low-histamine diet include mozzarella, young Gouda, mascarpone, ricotta and cream cheese.
Any cut of fresh beef or poultry has low amounts of histamine, as long as it’s been stored and prepared properly. Fresh caught fish is fine to eat, except for tuna, which is high in histamine. Because fish is highly perishable, its histamine levels can increase quickly even it if it’s stored on ice, so to be safe, stick to only the freshest fish.
Foods to Avoid
Some fruits and vegetables, even though they are not high in histamine, are considered histamine liberators -- they can stimulate the release of histamine from immune cells, and you should avoid them. Histamine-liberating fruits include bananas, strawberries, papayas, kiwi, pineapples, mangoes, raspberries, tangerines and grapefruit.
Vegetables to limit include tomatoes, spinach, eggplant, avocado and peas.
Hard and aged cheeses like cheddar, Roquefort, and Swiss, as well as any cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, are higher in histamine and should be avoided.
Shellfish contains compounds that are histamine liberators, so shrimp, scallops, oysters, mussels, clams and lobster should be avoided.
Aged, smoked and processed meats like salami, smoked salmon and sausages are high in histamine and should be avoided.
Anne Danahy is a Boston-based RD/nutritionist who counsels individuals and groups, and writes about healthy eating for wellness and disease management. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Notre Dame, and a Master of Science in food and nutrition from Framingham State University in Massachusetts.