Food Additives

Food additives & allergy

Food additives are chemicals incorporated into foods/drinks to colour, flavour or preserve.  Some foods/drinks contain all three types of chemicals.  There are many chemical additives used by the food and drink industry and by law the manufacturer must inform the consumer what chemicals are in the can or tin or packet being purchased.  Because the chemicals have long and strange sounding names the industry works to a code.  Nowadays most chemicals are labelled by number and with the letter E attached (known as ‘E-numbers’.) 

What additives cause adverse reactions?

Eight different food additives are commonly known to cause adverse reactions. These are described briefly below.

1. Sulfites. The term, sulfites encompasses a variety of very small chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in foods. Sulfites prevent foods from turning brown when the food is exposed to air. Some of these are naturally occurring while most are added artificially to foods. Sulfites can cause mild to life- threatening symptoms in some people with asthma. Symptoms of adverse reactions to sulfites include: tightness in the chest, breathing difficulty, hives, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and sometimes, anaphylactic shock. Sulfites are most often found in wine, dried fruits, white grape juice, frozen potatoes, maraschino cherries, fresh shrimp, and certain jams and jellies. At one time, sulfites were used on fresh fruits and vegetables, such as in salad bars, to help retain color and freshness; however, the USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned use of sulfites for such use.

2. Aspartame (Nutrasweet) is a calorie-free sweetener used in many foods and beverages. People who have a problem metabolizing the amino acid phenylalanine should not consume aspartame. Many other types of adverse reactions have been reported in relationship to aspartame but these reactions have not been adequately verified to conclude that they are truly caused by aspartame.  You’ll find this in many diluting fruit drinks, low-calorie soft frinks, Lucozade sports drinks etc.

3. Parabens are used to preserve foods and medications. They also are used in sunscreens and shampoos where they can cause reactions such as severe contact dermatitis. Examples of parabens are ethyl-, methyl-, propyl-, and butyl-parabens.

4. Tartrazine is a yellow dye most commonly used in beverages, candy, ice cream, desserts, cheese, canned vegetables, hot dogs, salad dressing, seasoning salts, and catsup. Adverse reactions can include hives or swelling, and possibly a trigger for asthma symptoms.

5. Monosodium glutamate, glutamic acid (MSG).

Manufacturers and restaurants use MSG to enhance flavor in packaged meats and foods. Adverse reactions can cause headache, a burning sensation on the back of the neck, chest tightness, nausea, diarrhea, and sweating. There are rare reports that people with asthma who have consumed MSG have more severe asthma episodes. “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”—sudden adverse reactions to eating food from Chinese restaurants—is often attributed to use of MSG in these prepared foods.  MSG is in such widely consumed products as Pringles crisps, dry roasted peanuts, tinned soups, some sausages and many Oriental dishes (both from restaurants and supermarket shelves).

6. Nitrates and nitrites are chemicals used to preserve foods, prevent deadly botulism infection, enhance flavors, and color foods. Symptoms are rare, but may include headache or hives in some people. Nitrates and nitrites are commonly used in hot dogs, bologna, salami, and other processed meats and fish.

7. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) are preservative chemicals added to breakfast cereals and other grain products to prevent them from changing color, odor, and flavor. These substances have been linked to chronic hives and other skin reactions on rare occasions.

8. Benzoates are preservatives used in some foods, including cakes, cereals, salad dressings, candy, margarine, oils, and dry yeast. Benzoate reactions are very rare.

As well as the above this list contains the specific additives you should avoid (chemical name and E-number.)  Inspect all packets, tins, bottles etc. to ensure none of these banned chemicals are in them: E122 (tartrazine); E104 (quinoline yellow); E107 (yellow 2g); E110 (sunset yellow); E122 (azorubine); E123 (amaranth); E124 (ponceau 4R); E127 (erythrosine); E128 (red 2g); E131 (patent blue); E132 (indigo carmine); E120-E219 inclusive (called the benzoates), E621, E622 and E623 (called the glutamates).  Especially look out for E621, mono sodium glutamate which is a widely used flavouring in snack foods, savouries, gravy mixes, stock cubes, packet/tinned soups, Indian/Chinese/Oriental foods etc.)

Where there is poor labelling or the phrase ‘contains permitted additives’ or ‘contains permitted colourings and flavourings’ or just says ‘colourings and flavourings’: avoid the product.  Indeed avoid any product coloured red, orange, yellow, blue, lemon or green as there is a strong chance it may contain one of the listed agents.  Check tablets, capsules, lozenges, vitamin preparations and even the stripes in toothpaste.  If you are unsure about the safety of the product, avoid it.  If you’re not sure about a particular product, then it is wiser to avoid it.