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Eating Vegetarian With Reduced Histamine and Glutamate

Updated on October 1, 2013

What's the Issue with Veggie Flavor Enhancers?

I am being facetious when I say I am allergic to flavor! Sensitive to flavor enhancers would be closer to the truth. It's not the most typical form of intolerance, but there are times I need to be very careful about what's in my food. Histamine and glutamate occur in foods, but they are also neurotransmitters. And this is how I discovered the significance: There was a period of years when I tried, intermittently, various prescriptions for depression, anxiety... I had tried four different SSRIs before I said, "Never again." Oh, and there were other formulations, too, that were (to varying degrees) not right. I didn't put much credence in prescriptions. But I discovered, accidentally, that I reacted strongly to the antihistamine diphenhydramine (yes, the main ingredient in Benadryl, the PM in PM Tylenol). I shared the effects with a medical professional who wrote out a prescription: to take one to two in the evening, and during crises, round the clock (up to six over the course of a day and night).

Dietary histamine -- histamine from food sources -- isn't the primary issue. I have histamine responses to triggers -- predictable ones -- out there in the macro world of emotions and relationships. It seems to be my main stress hormone. I am one of those people who actually finds coffee relaxing, but I guess I experience some foods a bit like some people experience caffeine: adding fuel to the fire, revving up my brain, giving it energy for the things that it has, oh, too much energy for already. At the least, having too much of the wrong things in my food can mean that diphenhydramine isn't as effective at making me sleepy.

It's not just the foods that contain histamine that are issues. I think glutamates have some effect. So there go two of the big flavor enhancing ingredients in vegetarian food. And then there's my calcium reaction! (And that might be a little outside the scope of this page because calcium isn't technically a flavor enhancer... but to a lacto-ovo vegetarian there could seem to be a correlation.)

Excess calcium... it's the only one of the three that I personally associate with physical malady (including searing back pain and spasms) and not just with revved up energy. Here's how I first began to suspect that: I had been drinking a bone and joint beverage by Super C, which contains an innocuous 10% of the RDA for calcium. Then I got some other bone and joint beverage (high calcium) from the grocery outlet and... wow! In an uh-oh kind f way. I don't think it was the brand of beverage. I think now I see a link between excess calcium (which even a vegan can get in this age of oversupplemented foods) and how I feel physically and mentally.

I don't think that calcium is considered a neurotransmitter, but it has a hand in a lot of reactions in the body. Again, dietary calcium is more of a compounding factor to stresses in the macro world. It's like this: If I form such an attachment to a basil plant I am raising that I go to heroic lengths trying to save it... well, that's me being me! But if my mind keeps revving up beyond the point of tolerance while I try, try, try to save that basil plant, it can be that something I have consumed is adding fuel to the reaction.

I've been through a lot recently and have modified my diet to keep certain energies at a tolerable level.

That said, I'll turn my mind to how to eat vegetarian while limiting quantities of certain bioreactive thingies.

All images by the author of this page

What Are High Histamine Foods?

There is some dissension about what foods are problematic. You always see fermented foods -- and there's more of them than you might realize at first. Then there are some produce items that are generally regarded as histamine-rich or histamine-producing: tomatoes, strawberries...

But some ingredients... one person may say avoid it while others explicitly say it's okay. Peanuts? Peanut butter? That's one where you'll hear different things. I was surprised to see it come up on a forum as a problem histamine food when that's not what I'd read before. I browsed around some more and found references to it being high tyramine. If someone has a problem breaking down histamine, chances are good they also have a hard time breaking down tyramine. Peanuts are higher in histidine than most nuts (histidine being the amino acid that beaks down to for histamine).

There's also the issue of pseudo-allergies: foods that cause people to release histamine in a manner that's distinct from a true allergy. It's a more dose dependent response than a true allergy. I gather that some foods cause people in the general population to release a bit of histamine. But some foods, I gather, have that effect for some people but not others.

I think that inclusion of foods that are high in other amines besides histamine -- and foods that trigger responses for some subset of people -- are among the reasons for the disagreement between lists.

Minimizing Leftovers

If a person is restricting histamine foods, it's not just the type of food that needs to be considered, but the freshness factor. This is a huge issue! Some people go so far as to say don't eat leftovers. That is probably more extreme than the majority of us need. One thing I came across recently said to freeze uneaten portions within 24 hours. Protein foods may become a problem sooner than non-protein foods. The amino acid histidine breaks down to form histamine.

I have a less than full-size fridge and freezer. But if I buy the right kind of ingredients, I don't need to create much in the way of leftovers -- I can cook on the stove in a matter of minutes. Here are two things that cook up very quickly: split red lentils and specially prepared quick-cooking barley. Lentils in general cook faster than beans, but these petite split red lentils cook in a fraction of the time of regular lentils. They go well with frozen kale and onions, sesame oil, and garlic.

Yes, they did some pre-cooking on the barley-- a similar concept to instant/ quick cooking rice! Were any histamines introduced in the process? I can't say for sure, but I'm going on the premise that it's not a problem ingredient.

The Freshness Factor

I am curious about this product. I can't imagine trying to keep produce as long as the people who use these say they do. I suspect it would actually be a very bad idea, for a person for who is impacted by food freshness, to try to keep it for marathon-like time periods. There is bacteria -- and histamine formation -- long before it's apparent.

But I do really bad with some produce... especially cabbage. I try to cook cabbage right away and use it right away because I sometimes see obvious changes very shortly. Controlling moisture and air circulation sounds like a good idea -- I think.

Prepworks by Progressive Lettuce Keeper - 4.7 Quart
Prepworks by Progressive Lettuce Keeper - 4.7 Quart

Controls some conditions in order to keep produce freshness.


Fresh Vegetables - And Issues Regarding Packaging

Most fresh vegetables are alright from a histamine standpoint, but packaged salads tend to be a histamine problem. Bagged greens? I am not sure -- could be an issue.

The peas in this salad are petite peas that were bought frozen.

Sesame: An Alternative to Tamari or Boullion

The little golden bubbles are sesame oil. This is my #1 flavor enhancer, which I happened into on my own. There are few things that seem, to me, to have as much umani as toasted sesame oil. I use it largely for other health issues, to reduce sodium -- for some reason I don't miss salt when I add toasted sesame oil to broths and such. But I also figured it was better than using tamari sauce, or broth powders that contain glutamates even if they don't have MSG per se. While I doubted it was a freebie -- so many processes that enhance flavor increase histamine! -- I doubted it was nearly as problematic.

The information has been hard to track down. But I spotted sesame oil on a list of low oxalate foods by someone who found oxalates were exacerbating the histamine problem in her family. I don't think I have a problem with oxalates, but the list was interesting. Next to a few of the low oxalate foods, she noted 'high histamine'. And next to toasted sesame oil? Well... she noted that it tasted good. There's another vote for it!

I think it can have a place in far more than just Asian cuisine. Use it in anything a non-vegetarian might use beef broth... or a vegetarian might use veggie bullion and/or fermented soy products (miso, tamari).

A Grocery Discussion

This haul is from the Grocery Outlet, where items can be random, but there are some 'frequent flyers' including, surprisingly perhaps, the flax milk. This is not completely free of possible issue ingredients -- there are some things that a person with a severe dietary intolerance would avoid. But does reflect some modifications. I'll talk about some of what I bought -- and some I didn't.

Things I didn't buy, but might have if I hadn't been restricting some ingredients: 1. Veggie frankfurters (and there was quite a selection this time around). They have various problematic ingredients, including soy protein. 2. The spinach paneer Vetee pouch. 3. The Sugar Free Instant Breakfast. (The sugar free is a temptation, but there are various problematic ingredients, in addition to the excess calcium supplementation. Calcium times 2 -- aak! It is, for me, probably the biggest no-no of the three.)

On to some of the things I did buy:

The havarti cheese: This is the first time I've purchased it in a while. All fermented cheese is problematic from a histamine standpoint, but to varying degrees. I believe that havarti is less aged than most -- but a low histamine diet won't include a lot of it.

The flax milk: I know of possible trigger ingredient from the standpoint of histamine and/ or ingredients. It's the guar gum. Whether it is an issue... I think it may depend on the guar gum as well as the person.

The oats: Thoroughly green light! I often prefer cooked grains over bread, and it's probably better. Yeast is a histamine food, so people on a severe restriction might limit bread. But I think a lot of people are mildly or moderately and doing some picking and choosing by how much they like the food as well as the nutritional value.

The coffee beverages: Coffee does not contain histamine. In fact, it's a mild antihistamine. How caffeine actually affects a person depends on multiple metabolic issues, not just one. For me, it's great. There are many things -- foods and supplements -- that I can experience as being too energizing in the wrong sort of way. But caffeine can be quite calming. (That seemingly paradoxical caffeine response is more common in people with ADHD.)

Still, some sources do say avoid it. It may not be good for some people with histamine issues... the totality of what's going on inside their body. (Maybe if they're adrenaline glands are drained and they're using caffeine for energy? Or if the issue is related to the digestive process?) I've read a lot of research on caffeine, how it can have a mixture of positive and negative impacts on so many conditions, physical and mental, and I see it as very positive -- for me. While I don't have ADHD, in some ways, my chemistry seems more consistent with ADHD than anything I actually have been diagnosed with... but with a few extra quirks.

The Gatorade G2: For me personally,it's a good idea to have this (or something similar) on hand. This is a separate issue from difficulty breaking down dietary histamine (which, as I've noted, I don't think is the root of my histamine-as-stress-hormone issue). But dehydration can trigger a histamine reaction -- and trigger some other neurotransmitters. I don't think it has to even be major dehydration. It's like this: There are neurotransmitters that trigger the body to conserve liquids when availability is low. But those same neurotransmitters have other effects.

Heat and/or thirst at night have a big effect on my dreams and (presumably my brain chemistry). I try to avoid it. Gatorade can be a good idea if, for any of several reasons, I am not sure if I am well hydrated. I admit: It would be better to have the kind without the artificial coloring.

Starting from Scratch...

Processed foods tend to have free glutamates and histamine releasers. Another thing I passed up at the Grocery Outlet recently: flavored instant grits.

Grits have been a comfort food most of my life. It's easy enough to make plain quick grits and add frozen peppers and onions, garlic, Italian spices*, toasted sesame oil, and flax seed.

There is something I discovered by accident -- I truly wasn't aiming for this effect! -- but when I add both sesame and flax seeds, the taste and texture can be vaguely reminiscent of the bacon I remember from my nonvegetarian childhood... or vegan bacon bits perhaps. While I am still not certain that the toasted sesame oil is a 100% green light -- there's just a bit of a question mark there -- I imagine many people will find the combination of flax seeds and sesame oil agrees with them far more than, say, vegan bacon bits.

*Paprika is one of just a handful of spices I have seen on lists of restricted ingredients for low histamine diets.

Five Minute Potato Soup - Quick As Canned (But Not)

Here's a five minute lunch that's low in histamines and glutamates: as quick as canned, but no can. And no iffy additives.

Start with pure, high quality mashed potatoes, like the ones from Trader Joe's. (Frozen, they look like mini biscuits.) Toss them in a pot of water: a lot more water than the directions call for. After all, the directions are for mashed potatoes -- but they also make great soup.

Toss in (pretty much) your choice of green veggies. You won't want to use spinach if you're restricting histamines. As far as I know, kale is fine -- frozen kale is my usual alternative.

Add some garlic. I sometimes 'roast' garlic in the microwave (I have a two burner stove, but no oven) but powder is okay.

Potato soup can be comforting in kind of the same way vegan chicken broth is.

Of Condiments and Veggie Burgers

Fresh dill is a better idea than pickles on a veggie burger! It can be abundant and inexpensive at the Farmer's Market in the summer.

But speaking of veggie burgers: I don't imagine there are a lot of commercial ones that are free of probablematic ingredients. But that's not to say that some won't have fewer than others. On a previous trip to the grocery outlet, I read the labels on several varieties and went with the one that had black beans (with soy lower on the list)... and without the mushrooms.

I used to make lentil burgers from scratch at a co-op I used to live in. They had well cooked lentil, crumbled crackers, soy sauce, and a dash of Tobasco among the ingredients. If I were to make them now, I wouldn't use tamari: I would substitute sesame oil and Trader Joe's Every Day Seasoning.

As for the bun: The burger pictured here was on half a whole wheat English muffin. I decided sourdough would not be a good idea with the issues in my life right now.

Snack Foods

Some comfort foods feel right on a deep level. I eat a lot of olive oil potato chips. Since I tend to be underweight -- weighing in at about 100 pounds -- there doesn't seem to be much reason for me to avoid them. And these don't have trigger ingredients unlike some other seemingly healthy chips. There are some nacho-style chips at Trader Joe's. They're natural. They have flax seeds. But that kind of chip has glutamate ingredients in the seasoning.

Apples are rich in quercetin. They may help a little with histamine issues.

Another thing I like to eat is pepitas/ pumpkin seeds. They are higher in magnesium than any other food I am aware of. Calcium an magnesium have some counterbalancing effects. I have heard that pumpkin can be a problematic fruit (vegetable?) for people with histamines, but I haven't been able to locate anything about the seeds.

Pasta Options

Tomatoes are a histamine food, even when fresh. And canned products, in general, are more problematic than fresh. If a person needs to go very restrictive on histamine, an oil based pasta sauce is probably better. Many of the things that are included in pasta salads and oil based pasta dishes for flavor are histamine-rich, though. Be cautious of vinegar-based marinades.

What is alright? Garlic, parsley, and other fresh herbs. Dried herbs. While I did see artichokes on one list of no-no's, I think they are generally regarded as being alright. They are included in quite a few recipes touted as low histamine. Of course storage and preparation matter! I'm thinking frozen is probably a better choice than what you find in cans or jars. I also read recently that fresh artichokes don't stay fresh as long as they seem to stay fresh.

If a person doesn't have some other compounding issue, just about everything in a traditional fresh pesto sauce should be okay. Parmesan cheese is high histamine. So are vegan alternatives that contain yeast.

Quick Low Histamine Recipes

This cookbook is full of quick low histamine recipes. Though it's not touted as vegetarian, and may not be completely so, I believe plant-based foods are emphasized. That's actually among the criticisms I have read on Amazon: There are a lot of veggie recipes that include legumes. Some people have intolerances to various legumes and grains; some people who need to restrict histamines feel more comfortable with very fresh animal-based proteins.

But the author here feels plant-based meals are helpful. She maintains a blog called the Low Histamine Chef that includes some veggie recipes -- there's a link below to a post.

The premise of the book seems to be that low histamine cooking doesn't have to take a long time -- but what comes to my mind right away is the connection between quick cooking and reduction of the need to plan to have much in the way leftovers.

The Other Side of Histamine...

The following article is from someone who has histamine issues, but includes some histamine foods in his recipes. There are a lot of good points here, like taking into account the overall health value.

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