An Aubergine Missionary: Chinese Eggplant (and: the Great Nightshade Debate)
It would be going too far to say that I dislike eggplant. There are several eggplant dishes I actually quite like; smoky babaganoush, elegant eggplant-encased Timbale, Chickpea Spaetzle with Eggplant…. OK, fine. There are three eggplant dishes I quite like.
But let’s just say that if there were 100 vegetables on the Titanic and I only had life vests for 75 of them, eggplant might not make the cut.
Which is why I surprised even myself when, on a whim, I picked up an especially long, sturdy, light purple Chinese Eggplant from the farmer’s market this week. Kudos to the farmer in charge of marketing, whose description of this particular vegetable caught my attention and gave me enough pause to reconsider it. “Mildest flavor. Virtually seedless. Creamy texture.”
And with that, I was googling recipes to make with my unexpected vegetable selection.
I settled on this simple recipe for Stir-Fried Asian Eggplant, namely because it was fast and I had all the ingredients in the house. When I say fast, I mean it took 10 minutes, start to finish. And when I say finish, I mean the moment in time where the entire eggplant was in my stomach. Yes, it was that delicious. To make it gluten-free, use Panda brand Green label Oyster Sauce (not the red label!) by Lee Kum Kee. I declined to include a photo, since its not a particularly glamorous dish. Mushy and monochromatic brown does not make for a seductive lead photo on one’s blog. But consider me converted nonetheless.
The Great Nightshade Debate
Eggplants are part of a botanical family called Nightshades (Latin: Solanaceae) that is comprised of over 2,000 different species of plants, both edible and non edible. Other well-known members include peppers, potatoes (but not sweet potatoes), tomatoes, as well as tobacco and morning glories. Some non-edible, woody nightshade plants produce leaves and berries that are known to be poisonous, and these include Belladonna (a.k.a. ‘Deadly Nightshade’) and Bittersweet Nightshade.
The source of some nightshade toxicity lies in natural compounds called alkaloids that they produce as defense mechanisms against insects and other predators. There are a variety of alkaloids with varying types and degrees of biological activity; some are toxic, and some are not. Certain alkaloids can have an “anticholinergic” effect in humans, which means they block the action of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, a compound responsible for triggering contractions of involuntary(smooth) muscles such as those responsible for intestinal contractions, breathing and heartbeat.
These particular alkaloids have made nightshade-derived compounds the basis for numerous prescription drugs, including some that prevent GI spasms in patients with IBS or colitis. They have also cemented the reputation of all nightshade plants as being “toxic” in some circles.
But are common vegetables from the Nightshade family truly dangerous to eat or toxic to humans?
No; at least not to the vast majority of people. Just as certain mushrooms can be toxic but others are perfectly safe for humans to eat, so too seems to be the case with edible nightshade plants. First, the type of alkaloids in edible nightshades, called steroidal alkaloids, are different than those found in their toxic distant cousin Belladonna. Eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes contain so-called ‘steroidal alkaloids,’ which are responsible for the bitter taste of a raw eggplant. These vegetables contain extremely low levels of alkaloids, with the notable exception of improperly-stored potatoes that have sprouted or turned green. Alkaloids are not stored in the body, so one can excrete them out easily without worry of them ‘building up.’ Think about it: the folks in the South of France practically live on ratatouille– a nightshade extravaganza of eggplant, peppers and tomato–and no blips on the epidemiological screen have been noted with respect to increased incidence of disease, toxicity or allergy there. (Quite the contrary!)
Indeed, there is a very small minority of people who are very sensitive to even these low levels of alkaloids, and they can experience digestive distress when consuming nightshade vegetables, including stomach pain, diarrhea or vomiting. Others have been reported to experience systemic symptoms like rapid heartbeat, headache or a burning sensation around the lips/mouth. For these folks, adverse reaction to nightshades could be considered a non-IgE mediated food intolerance. It’s anyone’s guess as to how prevalent this condition is, though my guess is not very. So far, I’ve only encountered one patient who seems to truly react badly to all nightshades as a whole.
Just because a small number of people react to these vegetables, however, doesn’t imply that the trigger compounds are inherently dangerous to the rest of us. In fact, eggplant glycoalkaloids have actually been observed to have protective effects against colon and liver cancer cells in some small studies! In the same way that some people are particularly sensitive to the sulfites in wine or histamines in fish and fruit–but these natural compounds neither trigger symptoms nor cause harm to others– so too are some people sensitive to the alkaloids in nightshades. It’s an unusual pharmacological reaction that affects an unfortunate few, not a sign of toxicity that the general public needs to be concerned with.
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