Histamine in Cheese
Histamine, of allergy commercial fame, is found in many different cheeses. Let's dive into the science behind it!Disclaimer
I'm not a doctor and I don't give medical advice. This information is just for reference.
Have you ever had a burning mouth or itchy tongue after eating a piece of cheese? You may very well have encountered high amounts of histamine! Histamine is a naturally occurring chemical compound that serves some crucial roles in the body: blood pressure control, cell growth, and many others. It’s commonly found in fish and fermented foods like cheese, charcuterie, and wine. However, if we ingest too much histamine it can cause problems (like the burn). Excess histamine consumption is indeed a health hazard and can cause itching/burning, flushing, headache, breathing troubles, etc. For certain susceptible individuals, high amounts of dietary histamine can trigger migraines.
Histamine belongs to a broader classification of molecules known as biogenic amines. These compounds all exhibit similar symptoms when ingested in excess. Histamine is the most well-studied of the bunch. What makes these unique is that they all form due the breakdown of certain amino acids. For example, histamine is formed by the decarboxylation of histidine. We’ll discuss this further below.
Histamine in Cheese
Hopefully at this point you aren’t overly alarmed. Although excess histamine can be troublesome, it is often at okay levels in most cheeses. The dose/response level of histamine and its side effects is highly variable person to person. This means that a cheese that tingles someone tongue might have no effect on someone–or might be really unformattable for others. The FDA has guidance that 50ppm is the maximum level they like to see in fish products. Histamine in cheese isn’t on their radar. I think this might change in the next few years due to the newfound appetite consumers have for long-aged cooked cheeses like Alpine-styles, which seem to be predisposed for higher histamine levels. Probably due to selecting for certain microbes which are very efficient at converting histidine to histamine (more info on that below). In Switzerland, for example, they are keenly aware of this issue. However, in many cases cheese isn’t the worst offender.
On the less science-y side of things, there is a phenomenon known as “parm rash” in some cheesemongering circles. This can sometimes occur due to prolonged contact with high histamine levels throughout the day (like breaking down a whole wheel of parm). It happens to me quite a bit with certain cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano, Sbrinz, or other well-aged Alpine styles. (Over-share moment: the worst histamine reaction I’ve had is to a beer. My breathing was so badly effected that I had to rush home to get my inhaler. By the time I got home I had taken off my shoes and socks due to my feet being so itchy.)
Scientifically speaking, histamine is the product of the enzymatic breakdown of histidine into histamine. Specifically, the bacterial enzymatic activity of histidine decarboxylases. As the name “decarboxylase” implies, carbon dioxide gas is a by product of this reaction. Many different types of microbes can perform this reaction. To name a few: Oenococcus oeni (wine), Pediococcus damnosus (beer), and Lactobacillus buchnerii (cheese). Like any microbial reaction, they can be accelerated under certain circumstances (like temperature abuse).
Cheese and Seafood?
No, this isn’t a section talking about the pitfalls and/or benefits of cheese and seafood pairing. Histamine is a huge issue in the seafood industry. The presence of histamine being at high levels in spoiled fish is such a concern that it has its own name: Scombroid poisoning. Just like we discussed, microbes like Morganella morganii are the culprit. (Also why seafood should be frozen in most cases; sorry Gordon).Top