The seed of the fenugreek plant is used in Indian-style spiced foods, such as curries. Allergic reactions to fenugreek have been reported, although as far as we know these are rare.
The symptoms of a food allergy can come on rapidly. These may include nettle rash (otherwise known as hives or urticaria) anywhere on the body, or a tingling or itchy feeling in the mouth.
More serious symptoms of a food allergy may include:
The term for this more serious form of allergy is anaphylaxis. In extreme cases there could be a dramatic fall in blood pressure (anaphylactic shock). The person may become weak and floppy and may have a sense of something terrible happening. This may lead to collapse and unconsciousness. On rare occasions, death from a food allergy can occur.
In people allergic to fenugreek, eating it is just one way that symptoms can occur. In 1997, a scientific team in India reported a case in which allergy symptoms were triggered by inhalation of fenugreek seed powder. The same team reported on a patient with chronic asthma who developed facial swelling and wheezing after applying fenugreek paste to her scalp as a treatment for dandruff.
Fenugreek seeds, which come whole and ground, are used to flavour many foods including curry powders, spice blends and teas. The sprouted seeds may be added to salads or cooked.
Our enquiries have found that an essential oil obtained from the fenugreek seed can be used as food flavouring in imitation maple syrup, vanilla compositions, liquorice, pickles and other foods. The roasted seed is a coffee substitute.
People with allergy to fenugreek are advised to read food labels carefully. When eating out or buying a takeaway, question staff very directly.
Some people with peanut allergy also react to fenugreek (both are legumes and therefore closely related). This is because of a process known as cross-reactivity – in which the proteins in two foods are similar in structure.
Evidence for this link came from 2009 reports from Norway. A Norwegian allergy register recorded 15 patients with peanut allergy who reacted to curry – which often contains fenugreek. Doctors studied cross-reactivity using serum from a peanut-allergic patient. Serum was positive for fenugreek. Two grains of fenugreek on the patient’s lip caused an immediate reaction.
In our view, these findings have implications for anyone with peanut allergy who has an allergic reaction to a curry. Most of these reactions may indeed be caused by peanut, but there may be cases where the culprit ingredient is in fact fenugreek. All allergic reactions should be investigated so that the true cause is identified.
Some people with fenugreek allergy may react to other legumes (such as chick peas, soya, lentils or lupin), although we know of no published evidence to support this.