What Are Nightshades, Anyway?

With few exceptions, they’re not poison. Here's a quick nightshades explainer.

Double, double toil and trouble. So-called nightshades sound like they belong in a witch's brew or medieval poison, or like something that can be used to trick the Capitol into letting both you and your fake boyfriend win The Hunger Games. Turns out, they're just tomatoes. And potatoes. And eggplant. Okay, and also belladonna, which is, admittedly, a poison.

Some people think you should avoid even the "edible" nightshades because they're bad for inflammation or other health issues. As always, follow your healthcare provider's advice, but for most people, nightshades can be beneficial.

Debunking the myths around nightshades

"Nightshades" is a colloquial term for over 2,000 plants in the Solanacae family of flowering plants, some of which are edible. The myth of poison nightshades comes from the science being misinterpreted. Nightshades contain alkaloids, a natural pesticide. Consumed in large amounts, they can be harmful to humans. You'd have to eat a lot of potatoes though, like a huge amount.


Nightshade "intolerance" is one of those phenomena like gluten "intolerance." Some people legitimately are allergic or intolerant to certain foods. However, many other people might feel a little puffy one day and, in seeking an answer, try to manipulate their diet to optimize their health. At best, they feel better, either via the placebo effect or by successfully managing an actual health condition. At worst, they're missing out on important nutrients or even feeding into a potential eating disorder like orthorexia, the unhealthy fixation with eating healthy foods.

While it is important to balance one's diet with nutritive foods, obsessing over a food group or ingredients in foods can be more harmful than helpful. It's fairly clear when someone is allergic to something like nightshades because they will experience rashes, difficulty breathing, and swelling. Nightshade allergy is very rare. Meanwhile, the symptoms of intolerance, which include bloating, fatigue, and gastrointestinal issues, are the same ones experienced by those with indigestion or hormonal shifts (or waking up on the wrong side of the bed). Most evidence signaling that nightshades are "bad" for us is anecdotal.


Edible nightshades

There are several common fruits and vegetables that fall in the nightshade category, and they're good for almost everyone, so long as you like them and aren't one of the very few people allergic to them.



The greener the tomato, the higher its concentration of tomatine and solanine—these are the alkaloids that are bad for you. However, eating large quantities of tomatoes, as I am wont to do during the summer season when people give me bounty from their garden, is very unlikely to cause harm. The leaves contain higher concentrations of alkaloids than the fruit, but they're easy to avoid because they're gross.



The "green is alkaloid" rule applies here, too, but, again, eating green bell peppers is most often going to be a net positive. Some plants we lump in with "peppers" are not in the nightshade family, such as peppercorns, white pepper, and black pepper. But the ones with the cronch, like bell peppers, jalapeños, and habaneros, are in the nightshade family.



Eggplant, sometimes more beautifully called aubergine, is a divisive crop. Lots of people love it as a "carb swap" or a vegetarian entree, especially in Italian cuisine. Other people (me) think it's tasteless, spongy, and really only delicious when hidden among garlic and/or fried. The famous eggplant emoji, while it may signal a toxic relationship, should not cause you to fear the toxicity of the plant—the likelihood of poison is low.



White potatoes with any color skin are in the nightshade family. Yams and sweet potatoes are a whole other thing. Potatoes are some of the most versatile and transformable produce and do not need to be avoided due to their nightshade delineation. Many people avoid excessive potato consumption, however, due to their starch content, which may not be best for people trying to stabilize their blood sugar. In moderation, however, they are a nutritive and tasty part of our world.


Other edible nightshades

A few other edible nightshades run the gamut of flavor profiles and general usage. These include:

  • Gooseberries (which looks like a grape and a tomato had a baby)
  • Tomatillos (which are not tomatoes)
  • Tamarillos (which looks like an eggplant and a tomato had a baby)
  • Goji berries (one of those superfoods we used to hear so much about)
  • Cocona (which looks like a dense bell pepper but is a tropical fruit)
  • Huckleberries (if you thought these were only a fictional character, you're missing out)
  • Ground cherries (which look like a tomatillo and an orange cherry had a baby)
  • Spices such as cayenne, paprika, chili, garam marsala, chipotle

Poisonous nightshades

Many nightshades are straight up poisonous. Yet, as with many poisons, several are used as drugs or for other medicinal purposes.

Belladonna and hemlock

To talk about Hunger Games again, the berries referred to in the series, "nightlock," are likely a mutation (or "muttation") of hemlock and belladonna. Hemlock was famously used to poison Socrates, and belladonna, aka deadly nightshade, is the witchiest of the nightshades. Both can be used in smaller doses for medicinal purposes. Ophthalmologists use belladonna in the solution that dilates patients' eyes.



The tobacco plant is a nightshade and, as we all know, has been used as a drug for millennia due to the chemicals in the leaves. Traditionally, tobacco has been used medicinally as well.


Ashwagandha, or winter cherry, is a common psychedelic known to increase perception. It's also used in medicines and herbal supplements, though research on the efficacy of many of these supplements is lacking.


Bottom line

Edible nightshades contain lots of nutrients such as vitamins A, B, and C, folate, and potassium. They're full of antioxidants and fiber. If you enjoy foods in the nightshade family, there's no need to start eliminating them from your diet unless you're under the guidance of an actual healthcare provider, not your cool aunt's friend.