Food is not the only thing we consume. We also eat the additives that go into foods, but which provide no nutritional value or calories. These additives are also used in drugs that are consumed. Both of these have the potential to cause allergic reactions, even though they are not foods. If you have an allergic reaction in your family and eliminating foods has not revealed the culprit, consider the additives that may be in your foods and medications.
True Additive Allergies May Be Rare
Doctors and specialists have been trying to determine for some time whether or not additives cause true allergies. Some people have been proven to react to them, sometimes badly. The general consensus is that true allergies to these substances are possible, but rare. The reason, say the experts, is that additives don’t contain the kinds of substances—proteins typically—that usually cause immune system-mediated allergic reactions.
One of the more common additives in both foods and drugs, and one that can cause potentially life-threatening reactions, is sulfite. Sulfite additives are used in food and drinks, most notably in wine. They are also added to some medications. They have been known to cause asthma and wheezing, ranging from moderate to severe. This reaction can be fatal.
Sulfites caused a big controversy in the 1980s, following a big increase in their use as additives and preservatives. In 1986, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually banned sulfite use in fresh produce used in restaurants and sold in grocery stores. Foods, medications and drinks with a high level of sulfites must be labeled as such. The ban came after at least 13 deaths were attributed to sulfites.
Another culprit in additives in both foods and medications is coloring. There are several types of color additives, both synthetic and natural, that may cause reactions. The FDA requires that yellow dye No. 5, for instance, be listed with a warning on foods that use it. It is typically used in drinks, candies and desserts and can cause hives in some people.
In an attempt to make foods seem safer and healthier, many manufacturers boast of using natural colors. These, however, may actually cause more allergic reactions because they may actually contain proteins that can trigger reactions. One example is a natural red dye called carmine, which is made from crushed insects. Proteins retained in the dye from the insects have been found to cause allergic reactions in some people. In one study, the source of a supposed reaction to an antibiotic was actually found to have been triggered by the natural red dye used in the medication.
These are just two examples—color dyes and sulfites—of additives that have the potential to trigger reactions in some people. Whether these are true allergic reactions is not necessarily relevant if you experience them firsthand. If you have someone in your family reacting and can’t figure out what the cause is, you may need to look to additives. Talk to your doctor or allergist about safe ways to determine if the source of the cause may be sulfites, colors or other additives.