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Allergy & Sensitivity to Food Preservatives

Although many people can safely eat foods containing preservatives, some people, especially those with asthma and other allergies, tend to be sensitive or allergic to them.


Once upon a time, local farmers hauled their carts filled with the freshest, seasonal produce to the market square daily to sell the goods directly to the people. Those days are long gone. Nowadays, natural and artificial preservatives are added to many foods to preserve freshness, enhance flavors, and extend shelf life.


Although many people can safely eat foods containing preservatives, some people, especially those with asthma and other allergies, tend to be sensitive or allergic to them.


The most common preservatives in food triggering allergic reactions are SULFITES, BENZOATES, ANTIOXIDANTS, and NITRATES.


SULFITES. Sulfites are common food and medications preservatives that have been around for hundreds (or possibly thousands) of years. They’re widely used to keep the freshness of the wine and to prevent discoloration of dried fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Sulfites also occur naturally in foods and wines to some extent.


The most common sulfite is sulfur dioxide. The less commonly used sulfites are sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, potassium bisulfite, and potassium metabisulphite. More often they are used in cold drinks including fruit juices and wine. They are also used to preserve canned foods, smoked and processed meats, dried fruits, and salads.


The good news is that sulfites usually are safe for people without asthma and allergies. If you have asthma, your risk of sulfite sensitivity could be higher. Those who are sensitive to sulfites can experience difficulty breathing, chest tightness, wheezing and, less commonly, hives or urticaria.


Reactions vary from mild to severe. If you’re sensitive to sulfites, avoid high-sulfite foods – dried fruits, wine, and a bottled lemon juice.


BENZOATES. Benzoic acid, sodium benzoate, and parabens are widely added to food and drinks. It’s mostly used in salad dressings (vinegar), carbonated drinks (any bubbly, sparkling beverage), jams, fruit juices, pickles (to enhance the flavor), and condiments.


Sodium benzoate inhibits the growth of fungi and enhances foods’ flavor. They are suspected to cause urticaria, angioedema, and asthma.


ANTIOXIDANTS. Antioxidants such as BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are used to delay rancidity in fat and oils. When air reacts with the food, the oxidation starts. The process negatively alters flavors in food, impacts the food appearance (pigment loss), and causes the nutrient depletion. Fighting off the oxidation process is where antioxidants are brought into play.


Antioxidants are added to processed foods, vegetable oils, cheese, chips, and meat products. They are believed to cause rhinitis, urticaria, and angioedema.


NITRATES/NITRITES. These are food preservatives found in processed meat like bacon, salami, ham, sausages, and hot dogs. They help to prevent the oxidation process and the growth of harmful bacteria. Also, that appealing red or pink color is due to these compounds.


Adverse symptoms may include headache and hives in some people.


There are many types of adverse reactions that can occur as a result of food preservatives. All the chemical compounds that preservatives are made of can harm the immune system triggering the classic allergic reaction (hives, atopic dermatitis, itching) as well as digestive, respiratory, and behavioral problems.


It should go without saying, but always read food and drink labels. If you think you’re sensitive to any of these preservatives, avoid buying goods that list them as ingredients.

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