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Could You Have a Potato Allergy?

With gluten, nuts, and other food intolerances taking the spotlight over recent years, potato allergies are a lesser-known occurrence that can often go overlooked.

While a potato allergy may be less common, it can affect both adults and children across a spectrum of symptoms. An allergic response can range from mild to severe and may trigger upon contact with raw potatoes or after consuming potatoes in different forms.

People with a potato allergy may not respond well to other foods containing similar allergens to those in potatoes. It’s important to know what’s at play when experiencing potato allergy symptoms and how to differentiate those symptoms from cases of intolerance.

What’s a Potato Allergy? The Root Cause

Food allergies can occur when the immune system reacts adversely to certain compounds found in foods. In the case of a potato allergy, the immune system ‘mistakes’ certain proteins within the potato as harmful substances and responds defensively, such as when bacteria or viruses are present.

The root causes of potato allergies and reactions are characterised by either an individual’s immune system or being susceptible to a chemical sensitivity; both having a negative reaction to certain compounds found in potatoes. Among the most common culprits that can trigger an adverse response are patatin and solanine, which are both naturally found in all potato varieties.

Solanine, a Common Toxin in All Nightshades

Solanine is a toxic alkaloid that’s semi-poisonous as a defence mechanism against animal predators. With the exception of ‘green potatoes’ (which are often caused by improper storage and contain higher levels of this toxin), solanine is generally safe to eat in moderation when consuming potatoes and other agricultural nightshades.

While actual solanine poisoning can cause severe gastrointestinal issues, the immune system is not normally involved in the reaction, it being a chemical reaction to the alkaloid. However, some individuals are unable to tolerate even small doses of solanine, and can thereby have an allergy or intolerance to potatoes or multiple nightshades.

Patatin, a Prevalent Allergen in All Potatoes

Patatin, which is the major storage protein found in all potatoes, is more widely known as the primary contributor to those who suffer from a potato allergy. Very different from solanine, patatin has been studied and identified as the major cause of potato allergy, particularly symptoms like eczema, dermatitis, rashes, hives, and other skin conditions.

What About Sweet Potatoes?

Despite being viewed as the same type of root vegetable, sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) belong to an entirely different family of plants known as Convolvulaceae, or Morning Glories.

Not only do they have different antioxidants and glycemic indexes, but there are no published allergens (like patatin) found in sweet potatoes. As such, they do not cause the same allergy reactions as the common potato (Solanum tuberosum) of the Nightshade family Solanaceae. You can, however, have an intolerance to sweet potato caused by an IgG reaction to sweet potato proteins that can be very impactful.

Potato Allergy Symptoms

As with other allergies, the symptoms associated with a potato allergy can vary in extremity from mild sensitivities to alarming emergencies. Allergy symptoms can be particularly noticeable when handling raw potatoes. While symptoms can occur immediately, the onset of an allergic reaction can take 45 minutes to an hour after contact or consumption.

Some of the commonly reported potato allergy symptoms include:

  • Red and itching skin, which can progress as hives, eczema, or similar rashes
  • Swelling or burning of the throat and pharynx, including problems swallowing
  • Itchy eyes, nasal congestion, a runny or stuffy nose, or sneezing
  • Wheezing, difficulty breathing, or lung congestion
  • Abdominal cramps, bloating, nausea, flatulence, diarrhoea, or vomiting

In addition to these reactions, headaches and brain fog can also occur as a mild allergic response. These are more mild and frequent symptoms, but in rare cases, a serious potato allergy can be a life-threatening risk.

Severe Allergy Symptoms

In the case of hypersensitive allergic reactions, some people can have an extreme response that may lead to anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis is a critical allergic reaction that can be deadly if not treated promptly. Anaphylaxis usually has acute-onset symptoms that appear immediately and escalate quickly, requiring immediate medical treatment.

Early-onset symptoms of anaphylaxis caused by food allergies typically include:

  • Swelling of the throat, mouth, eyes, or face
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty catching one’s breath
  • Immediate drop in blood pressure
  • Dizziness or loss of consciousness
  • Nausea or vomiting

Immediate medical attention is critical when severe allergy symptoms like anaphylaxis occur. Treatment may require epinephrine (adrenaline) injections, intravenous antihistamines, and oxygen to lower the body’s allergic response, reduce inflammation of the air passages, and improve breathing.

Potato Allergy vs Potato Intolerance

While often used interchangeably, potato allergy and potato intolerance are two not the same. A true allergy is caused by certain compounds triggering an IgE immune system reaction. Such allergens can have an influence on many different organs in the body and can manifest in a variety of ways, ranging from mild skin irritation to life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Potato intolerance is more widely common but has less severe symptoms and health implications. Potato intolerance typically involves an IgG reaction to the proteins in potatoes and not an allergic IgE reaction.

Intolerances and chemical reactions can manifest in experiencing gastrointestinal distress like loose stools, bloating, and nausea, or more severe symptoms like excessive mucus, skin rashes, hives, and itchy eyes. But like gluten and other widely processed starches, the inability to tolerate certain products is often confused. With potatoes you can have an allergy (IgE) reaction and an intolerance (IgG) reaction; both of these are immune responses. A Food Intolerance or Food Allergy Test can help to identify if potato is causing you an issue.

What To Do If You Suspect You’re Allergic to Potatoes

If you know or suspect that you’re susceptible to potatoes due to an allergy and other intolerance, it’s important to first consult your doctor, allergist, or registered dietitian. The support of a medical professional can help you identify and understand the types of foods that are safest for you to consume and which foods you should avoid.

You can also test for a potato allergy with a simple, at-home finger prick test. This can help fast-track your access to information needed to help you make better decisions about your diet and food choices.

Get a Potato Allergy Test

As with all situations that involve an adverse reaction to certain foods or substances, it’s important to get a potato allergy test. A test will determine the allergy and rule out the possibility of having intolerance symptoms that are not immune-related.

For individuals who have a potato allergy, it’s crucial to be vigilant about reading nutrition labels and ingredients lists. Remaining hyper-aware of what you’re putting into your body is your best defence.

Potatoes are a common starch used as a filler for a wide variety of food products. And because they are inexpensive and easily available, potatoes are often found in staple baked goods, crackers, and various gluten-free products.

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What Foods to Avoid with a Potato Allergy

It can be difficult avoiding potatoes given the variety of processed foods that contain potato-based derivatives, like certain types of enriched flour, yeasts, and baking powders.

To help you navigate a potato allergy or potato intolerance, below is a food list of potato products and ingredients you want to check for on food labels:

  • Potato crisps – Likewise, chips and other potato-based salty snacks are obvious foods to avoid.
  • Gnocchi – Certain types of potato-based pasta, like gnocchi, should be avoided.
  • Casseroles – Including croquettes and other prepared foods that contain mysterious combinations of foods should be consumed with caution.
  • Vodka – Potato is used to make different types of vodka.
  • Yeast – Countless types of beer, bread, and baked goods use yeast derived from potatoes.
  • Shredded cheese – Some processed and packaged cheeses contain potato starch.
  • Dried potato flakes – These are often used as a thickener for canned soups, stews, and purees.
  • Potato flour – Commonly used as a gluten-free substitute for wheat flour, potato flour is found in various baked goods (bread, muffins, cookies, etc.) and consumer packaged goods (chips, crackers, gluten-free snack foods, etc.)
  • Modified potato starch – This can be a hidden ingredient found in a variety of products, including certain sweets and candies.
  • Herbal medicines – Potatoes are sometimes used in herbal medicines to treat upset stomach symptoms. Let your pharmacist know to add your allergy to their records as a safeguard
  • Topical rubs

Potato is a very common ingredient that can be found in a variety of places. In addition to reading food labels, use caution when eating out to ensure that you are not eating potato-derived products.

Cross-Reactivity to Related Allergens

In some cases, an allergy to specific foods and even non-food substances (e.g. pollen) can make you more susceptible to having a particular food allergy. This is called cross-reactivity and it occurs when different substances share the same types of proteins.

Individuals who have potato allergies may also experience cross-reactive allergic reactions to certain pollen (e.g. birch pollen and grass pollen), latex, and other Nightshades. Common foods that may contribute to cross-reactivity include:

  • Eggplant
  • Goji berries
  • Tomato
  • Tobacco
  • Peppers
  • Spices, like paprika, cayenne, and red pepper flakes

Not all potato allergy sufferers have cross-reactivity symptoms with Nightshades and protein-related substances, but it’s important to be mindful when consuming or being in contact with these foods.

Navigating a Allergy: Treatment & Prevention

In case of severe allergy symptoms, you may require immediate medical treatment, such as an epinephrine injection. If you have a history of severe allergic reactions, whether to potatoes or cross-reactive foods and substances, your doctor may prescribe an epinephrine (adrenaline) kit to keep nearby at all times. This is to give yourself an injection in case you mistakenly consume or come in contact with potatoes, thereby helping to prevent a serious, life-threatening reaction.

Minor allergic reactions to potatoes may pass with time. They can also sometimes be resolved by using over-the-counter products, such as antihistamines. These common medications are designed to help counteract the histamine reaction causing your symptoms. However, you should always consult your GP or pharmacist if you think you have an allergy.

Talk to your doctor if you show symptoms of a potato allergy or intolerance. If you are unsure about which particular food is causing your symptoms, it may be recommended to have a blood test done to pinpoint your particular allergens. As mentioned above, if you have an allergy to potatoes, you may encounter similar allergic reactions to other foods. Fully understanding all of your allergy sources will help you prevent future reactions and live a healthier lifestyle.

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