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Adverse reactions to food additives.

If you had to guess how many additives were commonly used in food today, what would you guess? A dozen? Fifty? Maybe 100 at the most?

Would you believe anywhere from two to several thousand? That's right. Preservatives, conditioners, flavorings, colorants, sweeteners and the like are added to the food we eat every day.

What is even more startling, is that out of these thousands, surprisingly few have been reported to cause adverse reactions when ingested. (See table below). And then only in some susceptible people.
ADDITIVE NAME                  PURPOSE
Aspartame                      sweetener
Benzoates                      preservatives
BHA, BHT                       antioxidants
FD&C Dyes                      colorants
MSG                            flavoring
Nitrates/Nitrites              preservatives
Parabens                       preservatives
Sulfites                       preservatives

Here's a closer look at the additives that cause adverse reactions, the foods and beverages they are commonly found in, and the reactions they have been reported to induce. It should be noted that not all reported reactions have been verified scientifically.

ASPARTAME -- More widely known by its brand name, Nutrasweet, this low-calorie sweetener is found in many foods and beverages in place of sugar.

Recent studies suggest that aspartame can cause angioedema, or swelling of the eyelids, lips, hands or feet, in those who are sensitive to it. However, the incidence of these symptoms is extremely rare; research in this area is continuing.

BENZOATES -- Benzoates are used as a food preservative and are used in the processing of foods including: bananas, cake, cereal, chocolate, dressings, fats, licorice, margarine, mayonnaise, powdered milk, oils, powdered potatoes, and dry yeast.

BHA/BHT -- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are antioxidants, or agents that prevent oxygen absorption. BHA and BHT are used mainly in foods containing fats and oils. They are used primarily in cereal and other grain products.

BHA & BHT can cause hives and other skin reactions in people who are sensitive to them.

FD&C DYES -- The Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act of 1938 gave rise to the term FD&C (food dye & coloring). It approved a variety of dyes used in foods and beverages. They are identified on labels by color and number, such as FD&C yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine) or FD&C red No. 3.

Some foods that may contain tartrazine include: cake mixes, candies, canned vegetables, cheese, chewing gum, hot dogs, ice cream, orange drinks, salad dressings, seasoning salts, soft drinks and catsup.

FD&C yellow No. 5 may cause hives, urticaria or an asthma attack in those who are sensitive to the agent.

MSG -- Monosodium glutamate is best known for its role in Chinese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian cooking, which is why MSG reactions are sometimes called the "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome." However, this association is misleading because MSG is not just used in Oriental foods. MSG is used by many different manufacturers and restaurants as a flavor enhancer for a variety of foods.

Reactions to this agent reportedly include headache, nausea, diarrhea, sweating, chest tightness, and a burning sensation along the back of the neck. Such reactions appear to require the consumption of large amounts of MSG. Asthma reportedly may be made worse by MSG in some asthmatics, although this remains an area of continuing research.

NITRATES/NITRITES -- These two agents are widely used as preservatives though they also serve as flavor enhancers and colorants. Nitrates and nitrites are primarily found in processed meats such as hot dogs, bologna and salami.

Nitrates and nitrites may cause headaches and possibly hives in some individuals.

PARABENS -- Parabens are preservatives used in food and drugs. Examples of these agents include methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl parabens and sodium benzoate.

When ingested by individuals who are sensitive to them, parabens have been shown to cause severe contact dermatitis, or redness, swelling, itching and pain of the skin.

SULFITES -- Sulfiting agents such as sulfur dioxide, sodium or potassium sulfite, bisulfite and metabisulfite, are used to preserve foods and sanitize containers for fermented beverages. Sulfites can be found in many foods including: baked goods, teas, condiments and relishes, processed seafood products, jams and jellies, dried fruit, fruit juices, canned and dehydrated vegetables, frozen and dehydrated potatoes and soup mixes. They also are found in some beverages, (beer, wine, wine coolers and cider).

Sulfites are thought to cause reactions such as chest tightness, hives, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, lowered blood pressure, light headedness, weakness and an elevated pulse rate. Sulfites also may trigger asthma attacks in sulfite-sensitive asthmatics.

Until recently the highest levels of sulfites were found in restaurant salad bars. But in 1986, the Food and Drug Administration banned their use on fruits and vegetables intended to be sold or served raw because of the growing rate of sulfite reaction incidences.

The FDA in 1987 also ordered that packaged foods be labeled when they contain more than 10 parts per million of any sulfiting agent, so, sulfite-sensitive individuals may identify those packaged foods which should be avoided.


The best way to handle this type of sensitivity is to avoid those additives that cause problems for you. Your allergist can help you identify those items responsible for your symptoms and eliminate them, as much as possible, from your diet.

COPYRIGHT 1993 American Academy of Allergy and Immunology
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Pamphlet by: American Academy of Allergy and Immunology
Article Type:Pamphlet
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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