How do you recognize fermented food allergy or sensitivity? Begin with answering the following questions:
- Do you get a headache or a migraine after drinking red wine?
- Does fermented cheese like Parmesan, blue cheese and Roquefort trigger some reaction in your body?
- Have you had an allergic reaction after eating commercially fermented soy, pickles or sauerkraut?
If you said yes to one or more of these questions you might want to investigate if you suffer from fermented food allergy. However, be aware that fermented food sensitivity is a tricky issue. Reactions or side effects after consuming fermented meat, dairy, and other products are quite common but the root causes can be several.
- Fermented food allergy can have hidden causes
In addition, fermented food allergy or intolerance/sensitivity does not mean that you must avoid all fermented foods. Some are still able to enjoy homemade sauerkraut, fermented vegetables or yogurt.
This post is written with the intention to assist in identifying what specific foods cause allergy, intolerance or other adverse effects. Then these can be excluded to avoid reactions. However, you might still be able to enjoy certain fermented products that do cause any side effects.
Even though numerous factors can come into play, common allergy triggers in fermented foods are biogenic amines. What are they? And how can you avoid them?
Biogenic amines and fermented food allergy
Biogenic amines are substances created by bacteria that break down the amino acids in food. These amines are present in some foods that are overcooked, processed, ripened, fermented or decomposed. Amines cannot be removed by boiling or by any other method.
In healthy individuals, biogenic amines like tyramine are normally quickly broken down by a healthy gut, intestine and liver. Enzymes in your body such as MAO (monoamine oxidase) render amines from food harmless.
However, some people are missing the MAO enzyme, or it can become sluggish or blocked. This can lead to a build-up of amines in your body causing symptoms. Some drugs like antibiotics, antidepressants can also inhibit the actions of the MAO enzymes. This can cause…
- stomach problems
- mental confusion
As you can see, biogenic amines can affect a person mentally, his blood pressure, body temperature, and other body processes.
There are also different degrees of intolerance. Some people are just a little sensitive while others experience severe reactions from small amounts of amines. A few older studies showed that some people can get migraine attacks if they drink water containing as little as 1 mg of tyramine chloride, an amine.Many people are intolerant only to one or two specific amines (usually histamine and tyramine) while other amines might not bother them at all. However, identifying the specific amines triggering your symptoms can be hard.
If you suspect biogenic amine intolerance, then a good start is to keep a log of what you eat and drink. This way you might be able to discern a pattern and determine what fermented foods are linked to a headache, migraine or other symptoms you experience.
Children with behavior problems
Research suggests that about 70% of children with behavior problems are affected by salicylates, artificial colors, and preservatives, compared to only about 40% affected by amines. Many mothers have reported that their child becomes silly and hyperactive on salicylates whereas amines make them aggressive. Many children who are expelled from day care centers due to aggressive behavior are often sensitive to amines as well as to other food chemicals.
A study in 2002 found that men with MAOA-L who had been badly treated as children were more likely to exhibit antisocial behavior than those who had been well treated. This shows the need for parents to approach this problem with discernment and understanding.
If you suspect intolerance to amines, try the following:
- Keep a food diary to monitor what foods trigger symptoms; this can greatly help you to identify specific amines causing your symptoms
- Find a specialist who knows what biogenic amines are. You can test negative for allergies but still have a biogenic amine intolerance. Be sure the doctor knows what Diamine Oxidase (DAO) and Monoamine Oxidase (MAO) are before you consult him. These enzymes are responsible for degrading two of the most commonly identified biogenic amines, histamine, and tyramine.
- A safe way to avoid biogenic amines is by consuming fresh produce and avoiding commercially fermented foods. Buy fresh, cook fresh, eat fresh.
- Foods containing 2% salt or more are generally safe.
- Yogurts and similar dairy products are safe if the bacteria have been chosen especially not to produce biogenic amines.
- Homemade yogurt and fermented vegetables are usually safe if done properly.
- Get a high-quality probiotic supplement.
Some common biogenic amines are…
- Reports indicate that histamine and tyramine are the most toxic of all amines
Other common substances that can cause similar symptoms are salicylates and glutamates. People who have migraines and try to avoid amine-rich foods sometimes say ‘I tried avoiding foods but it didn’t work’. Sometimes this is because migraines can be provoked by food chemicals such as salicylates and glutamates.
Fermented foods containing amines
Here’s a list of a few fermented foods that contain amines and that can cause symptoms in those with intolerance or sensitivity. Please keep in mind that in many foods there can be a wide difference of tyramine concentration in different parts of the same food. Poor quality food also tends to contain higher amounts of amines, as does food not properly stored, cleaned or prepared.
“Red wine headache”
There are many people who get a headache after drinking red wine, which is a fermented drink. The symptoms can occur 15 minutes after drinking a single glass of wine and might be followed by nausea and flushing.
Some researchers believe this might be caused by tyramine and histamine present in red wine, even though other potential causes also exist (like tannins and sulfite). In one study on alcohol, red wine and Sake (an alcoholic beverage of Japanese origin that is made from fermented rice) were found to have the highest amine levels, while some beer had the lowest levels. Red wine can contain between 20–200% more histamines than white wine.
Can contain tyramine and Phenylethylamine if the malt is infected, or because of a later infection. It seems that the amine contents varies from brewery to brewery. In some studies, bottled/canned beers had the highest levels. Only 12% of tap beers had higher levels while the rest had low levels of tyramine.
The “cheese effect”
There are two main types of cheese—fermented and non-fermented. To ferment cheese you need to add live bacteria cultures. The bacteria feed on the lactose in the milk, producing biogenic amines as a byproduct. This process is often called aging. In one study they found that 18 of 26 kinds of cheese (26%) had high levels of tyramine.
In the 1960s, a British pharmacist noticed that his wife developed a headache every time she ate cheese, which is high in tyramine, at the same time she was taking MAOI antidepressants. In people who are taking certain drugs known as MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), the enzyme is inhibited and a build up of tyramine can occur leading to high blood pressure, headaches, itchy skin rashes, heart palpitations and diarrhea. A number of MAOI patients died from strokes or heart attacks before doctors realized that patients taking MAOIs needed to avoid foods high in tyramine. There is also a rare condition where people are born without the MAOA gene and, therefore, lack the MAO enzyme.
The cocoa bean is fermented to achieve its flavor. Dark chocolate contains the chemical tyramine, which has been found to trigger migraine headaches in the majority of migraine-prone subjects tested in some studies, according to the Clemson University Extension. Phenylalanine, another component of chocolate, has been shown to trigger migraines in about half the migraine-prone subjects in another field study.
Much of the commercially produced yogurt can contain tyramine and sometimes phenylethylamine. However, if probiotic bacteria cultures are carefully chosen, you can make your own homemade yogurt free of tyramine. High-quality starter cultures will prevent the creation of amines. One reason for this is because they are composed of probiotic bacteria strains that do not produce amines and even prevent the development of amines.
Many drugs can contain amines, including over the counter cold tablets, decongestants, nasal drops or sprays, some pain relievers, general and local anesthetics and some antidepressants. Be sure to check labels and ask you doctor before taking new drugs.
Biogenic amines in sauerkraut
A study in 1999 aimed to determine levels of biogenic amines in 121 sauerkraut samples. They tested Austrian manufacturers, household-prepared and sterilized with brine in jars. Even though very wide variations occurred, there were generally low concentrations of amines in sauerkraut.
- Lowest concentrations of amines found in household-prepared sauerkraut
Another study made in 2011 tested levels of biogenic amines in spontaneously fermented sauerkraut, during 45 days of storage. They added three different probiotic bacteria strains to ferment cabbage, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus curvatus.
After fermentation, they compared amine levels in jars where probiotic bacteria had been with jars without the added bacteria. This is the result:
- Adding probiotic bacteria created much lower biogenic amine levels in fermented cabbage. All biogenic amine levels were below the 100 ppm threshold. Histamine and tyramine were essentially absent during 45 days of storage.
- Fermenting cabbage without adding probiotic bacteria produced a higher amount of amines. When Lactobacillus bacteria were not added, the dominant biogenic amines created were putrescine, tyramine, and histamine. The longer the sauerkraut was stored, the higher the levels of amines created.
Conclusion: Use of starter cultures to ferment a vegetable mix prevents the extensive formation of biogenic amines.
This means that if you’re sensitive to amines, you might still be able to enjoy fermented vegetables, sauerkraut or yogurt.
Spoiled food packed with biogenic amines—cause of food poisoning
The concentration of biogenic amines in food is an indication of how much they have rotted or decomposed. High concentrations of biogenic amines can cause food poisoning no matter how healthy you are. In lower concentrations these same chemicals can trigger migraine attacks in susceptible sufferers.
Food freshness is a key factor to avoid biogenic amine side effects
The way meat is distributed in supermarkets can cause problems if you’re intolerant to amines. Most meats are vacuum packed, repacked and sold as fresh which means it can be up to ten weeks old when you eat it.
Studies show that vacuum packing can prevent the growth of bad bacteria but does nothing to prevent the development of biogenic amines.
Experience shows that if you’re sensitive to amines, you need to learn much about the history and freshness of your foods; you need to approach all possible amines-containing foods with caution.
Other foods containing biogenic amines
Certain bacteria are often used to process many commercially produced foods and as a result, these foods can contain high amounts of biogenic amines.
- For example, fermented soy and canned tuna are known to be very high in histamine, cadaverine, and putrescine.
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet). It is used as a sweetener in many drinks and 600 different foods. It contains phenylethylamine and can cause many problems even in healthy individuals.
- In one study they analyzed 45 commercial fish sauces and 23 soy sauces for their biogenic amine content. They reveal that content of biogenic amines varied from 100 mg/kg to 4000 mg/kg, depending on the method of manufacture. The content of biogenic amines in soy sauces was generally much lower than in fish sauces. Tyramine was the main biogenic amine in soy sauce, fish sauces contained high concentrations of tyramine, histamine, tryptamine and others. The levels of biogenic amines in fish sauces were at a level equivalent to that found in other matured foods like matured cheese.
- As said before, biogenic amines are formed when amino acids in food are broken down. High concentrations can, therefore, be found in fish and fish products that have not been kept according to hygiene guidelines.
Food that can cause side effects and allergic reactions if intolerant or sensitive
This table gives you an idea of what foods often are responsible for side effects. The high-very high group contains 10-100 times more amines together with salicylates or glutamates than the low-medium group. Exactly what foods you could eat and how much depends on how sensitive your body is. You just have to keep a log and exclude foods causing a reaction. Generally, fresh, organic foods are much safer than processed products.
Milk (Goat, Cow)
Fresh Cottage Cheese
Tofu Ice Cream
Chicken (No Skin)
Fish (White Meat)
Turkey (No Skin)
Meat Older Than 2 Days
Spicy Flavoured Snacks
Smoked Meat, Chicken
Meat Pies, etc.
Cola Type Drinks
Brains, Kidney, Tripe
Dried, Smoked Fish
Foods rich in histamine trigger reactions
These foods contain different levels of histamine. Please keep in mind that consuming several foods containing histamine at the same time might increase the risk of adverse effects. People who have low levels of the enzyme diamine oxidase cannot break down all histamine their body absorb from food containing histamine. That would be histamine intolerance.
- Dried fruits such as apricots, dates, prunes, figs and raisins (some might eat these fruits without reaction if thoroughly washed first)
- Vinegar or vinegar-containing foods, such as mayonnaise, salad dressing, ketchup, chili sauce, pickles, pickled beets, relishes, olives
- Soured bread, such as pumpernickel, coffee cakes, and other foods made with large amounts of yeast
- Fermented foods, such as pickled or smoked meats, commercially produced sauerkraut
- Aged or fermented cheese, such as Parmesan, blue and Roquefort and others
- Sour cream, sour milk, buttermilk, and yogurt; especially if not fresh
- Processed meats—sausage, hot dogs, salami and others
- Smoked fish—herring, sardines, and others
- Yogurt, most commercially produced
- Alcoholic drinks as wine and beer
- Cider and homemade root beer
Some foods might be low in histamine but they can stimulate the release of histamine in your body. The following foods are examples of this:
Resolving fermented food allergy
- First, you might want to try a low-amine diet to confirm that you are not intolerant to any amines. If not, then your case is most likely much easier to deal with.
- If you suspect amines being the cause, then you want to determine which amines are triggering your symptoms—histamine, tyramine or others.
- When you have a pretty good idea of possible triggers of symptoms, then treating fermented food allergy or intolerance includes avoiding all food triggering an adverse effect.
- After avoiding biogenic amines for a while, then the same foods can slowly be reintroduced to your diet to confirm the intolerance of this particular food. Otherwise, you might end up with a long list of foods to avoid when in reality not all those foods will trigger your allergy symptoms.
As you can see, revealing the real cause of fermented food allergy involves becoming a detective to investigate the intriguing case of your body. It requires patience and determination. But it can be done. And in the end, it will help you feel better.