When it comes to food allergies, U.S. ingredient lists offer a false sense of security. While eight major foods (milk, eggs, fish and shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy) are estimated to account for 90% of all allergic reactions, some food additives have become so common that they’re beginning to account for more and more food allergies.
Many of these don’t need to be clearly labeled at all, and some of them are simply so difficult to identify that you may not even know what to look for when reading ingredient lists. Here are four food allergies that are becoming increasingly common, so much so that you may not be able to protect yourself from simply by reading food labels.
1. Spices – Spice allergies are estimated to account for about 2% food allergies — although some allergists believe the difficulty of diagnosing this condition means the real numbers are higher. People can react to just about any spice used in cooking, including kitchen staples like garlic, coriander, cumin, and paprika. Unfortunately, in many prepared and packaged foods, specific spices aren’t listed as ingredients — and many restaurants won’t list spices on the menu.
The kitchen isn’t the only place you need to watch out if you have a spice allergy; many cosmetics, particularly natural cosmetics, use botanical ingredients which can cause skin reactions as well. In fact, for this reason, spice allergies are more often seen in women than in men. They often have had more lifetime exposure to potential allergens.
2. Corn – No one is sure exactly how many people suffer from corn allergy, but one study of self-reported reactions estimates it may be has high as 2%. Corn allergies are notoriously difficult to manage due to the fact that corn derivatives are used in many packaged foods — and can be labeled with some pretty confusing names. Corn products are also widely used in prescription and OTC drugs as a filler or binder and are increasingly being used in biofuels and bioplastics.
3. Seeds – While still not considered a major allergen in the U.S., reactions to sesame, poppy, sunflower and even mustard seeds are on the rise. Sesame is actually considered one of the top allergens in several other countries, including Canada, Israel and parts of Europe. The risk of seed allergies is heightened in people who already have an existing allergy to tree nuts. Sesame in particular can be found in many unexpected places, like cosmetics and in many foods.
4. Preservatives – It’s also possible to be allergic to common preservatives found in packaged foods. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to test for reactions to preservatives. Usually the culprit is identified through a process of elimination — for instance, when the same food prepared fresh at home causes no problems, but a reaction occurs eating the same dish from a restaurant. If an allergist can’t identify the specific allergen, the only solution may be to avoid processed foods entirely. (Even some fresh, unpackaged foods may be exposed to preservatives to extend their shelf life.) Current research suggests that about 1% of adults and 2% of children are allergic to common food preservatives. One class of preservatives, sulfites (which occur in wine, cured meats, and some dried fruits), is also known to exacerbate asthma symptoms in some people.
5. Food Coloring – Another increasingly common allergy is to the dyes used in packaged food. The dyes tartrazine, carmine, annatto, and saffron have all been reported as causes of severe allergic reactions in some people. Many other food colorings may also be potential allergens, although the ones I’ve listed are the most common. Natural food coloring seems to be just as potentially allergenic as artificial dyes.
If you find yourself having unexplained reactions to packaged or prepared foods (but no issues with food made from scratch), you may have an allergy or intolerance to one of these common food additives. Talk to your doctor about testing to uncover which of these common substances may be giving you trouble.
Photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via Flickr