Feta Histamine: High or Low?

Last Updated on September 18, 2023 by Aaron

Feta cheese, like other aged and fermented foods, can contain histamine. Histamine is a biogenic amine, which is produced as a byproduct when certain bacteria break down the amino acid histidine during the food aging or fermentation process.

This compound’s presence can vary based on specific production methods and the length of the fermentation and aging process. As such, the histamine content in feta can differ from one batch to another.

Quantitatively speaking, the exact histamine content in feta cheese is variable, making it difficult to pinpoint a specific figure. However, as a point of reference, histamine content in cheeses can range from non-detectable levels to over 1000 mg/kg in some aged cheeses. Generally, histamine levels above 100 mg/kg in food are considered high and can cause adverse reactions in sensitive individuals.

A quantitative study on biogenic amines has detected a level of 83.96 mg/kg of histamine levels in feta cheese (1), which is approaching the higher end but is still below the commonly accepted threshold.

A specific study (2) by Ehsani et al. (2012) cited in the article investigated the histamine content in various Iranian cheeses, including Feta. The results showed a mean histamine level of 4.99 mg/100 g for Feta cheese, which is equivalent to 49.9 mg/kg. This level is considerably lower than the 83.96 mg/kg reported in the initial study. However, It’s worth noting that Iranian feta is typically made from cow’s milk.

Why Histamine in Feta Cheese?

Histamine formation in feta cheese is a complex interplay influenced primarily by microbial activity.

As feta undergoes fermentation, it involves various lactic acid bacteria essential for conferring the cheese’s unique flavor, texture, and shelf-life. Some of these bacterial strains can convert the amino acid histidine, present in milk proteins, into histamine through a process called decarboxylation. As the cheese ages and its proteins break down, there’s an increased availability of free histidine, serving as a substrate for bacterial enzymes, particularly histidine decarboxylase.

The presence of histamine-producing bacterial strains in feta cheese like Lactobacillus, Enterococcus, and Streptococcus is pivotal (3).

This is why aged cheeses tend to have higher histamine content than fresh cheeses.

Environmental conditions, such as temperature, pH, and salt concentration, play a crucial role in this process. On average, many commercial feta cheeses are aged in brine for about 2 to 3 months, while the traditional Greek feta, such as the barrel-aged feta, might even be aged longer than that.

Certain bacteria might produce more histamine under specific conditions, meaning that traditional production methods, storage stipulations, and aging durations can all significantly impact the final histamine levels in the cheese.

Furthermore, even within feta cheese varieties, histamine content can diverge considerably depending on factors such as milk origin (sheep, goat, or cow), specific bacterial cultures used, and the intricacies of the aging process.

Eating Too Much Feta: Histamine Intolerance

Histamine is naturally present in many foods, but it becomes problematic for individuals with histamine intolerance. This intolerance arises when there’s an imbalance in the body: the histamine consumed surpasses the body’s ability to degrade and clear it.

The enzyme diamine oxidase (DAO) primarily manages histamine breakdown in the gut. Those with reduced DAO activity may have a heightened sensitivity to foods high in histamine, leading to an array of symptoms. These can range from headaches, flushing, nasal congestion, itchy skin, and hives, to digestive disturbances like gas and bloating. In some individuals, the ingestion of histamine-rich foods might even lead to disturbances in heart rate or sleep patterns.

Related: 5 Reasons Allergic to Feta Cheese

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