Headaches, hives, sinus problems, tummy pains – these are just some of the problems that people sensitive to chemicals in food experience. So how do you know if your health issues are linked to chemicals in food?
The first thing most people think of when they think of food chemicals are food additives like colours, flavours and preservatives. These additives can cause problems for sensitive people, but natural chemicals in foods can be just as problematic, and sometimes the two together form a cocktail that creates uncomfortable, painful or even debilitating symptoms.
Consulting your doctor to rule out any medical conditions that could explain your symptoms is an essential first step. But if you suspect some foods may affect your symptoms, or if you have a family history of sensitivity, investigating your diet could hold some answers.
Food sensitivity or intolerance is different to a food allergy – an allergic reaction involves our immune system reacting to particular proteins in different foods. Allergies can be tested relatively easily, however food sensitivity is a trickier prospect. Working out which chemicals may be a problem for you, and how much you can tolerate before you react, takes time, perseverance and guidance from a professional.
Common problem chemicals
If you’re allergic to a food protein, then you need to avoid just that type of food – for example, nuts or egg. However, food chemicals are found in different concentrations across groups of sometimes very different foods – that’s why it can be difficult to pinpoint problem foods. The most common chemicals that cause problems fall into four main categories:
- Salicylates are found in many fruits and vegetables, some higher than others; also in nuts, honey, tea, coffee, wine and beer.
- Amines come from the breakdown or fermentation of proteins. They’re high in foods like cheese, chocolate, wine and beer; some fruits and vegetables can also be high in amines.
- Glutamate is a building block of protein. It’s found in MSG (additive 621), but is also very high in ‘tasty’ and savoury foods, such as tasty cheese, yeast extracts, soy sauce, gravies and tomato paste. Some fruits and vegetables are also very high in glutamate.
- Food additives – If you’re sensitive to natural food chemicals, then there’s a good chance you’ll also react to some food additives. The most common problem additives are colours (particularly artificial ones), preservatives (such as antioxidants, benzoates and nitrates) and flavour enhancers (additives 620 to 635). Some flavourings, such as peppermint, can also cause problems. Additionally, food-chemicals sensitive people may react to perfumes and strong smells, soaps, components of cleaning products, cosmetics, medicines, toothpastes and deodorants.
Food additives are listed on the ingredient list of most packaged foods, but if you’re sensitive to food chemicals, such as salicylates or amines, you’ll need to have a reliable list of ‘low-chemical’ foods to eat. Expert advice from a dietitian specialising in food intolerances is an important resource. See ‘Useful Resources’ below for more information on food sensitivities.
How can I find out if I’m affected?
If you have an allergy, the only accurate form of diagnosis is in a medical setting, using skin prick testing or blood allergy testing. There are several other types of tests available – such as cytotoxic testing, vega testing, kinesiology, radionics or even hair analysis – but according to the Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA), these are based on limited evidence, and are not reliable (or recommended) tests. If you have an intolerance, the only accurate way to pinpoint the offending chemical is to follow an elimination diet (see ‘Elimination diets’, right), but be sure to consult with a dietitian before starting an elimination diet.
Testing for food intolerances involves eliminating all possible suspects from your diet, then adding them back, one at a time, to check for reactions. There are no simple tests that can be done – instead you need to follow a low-chemical diet (and possibly one that removes other groups of foods, such as gluten or dairy, if you suspect you might have problems with those, too).
Following this low-chemical elimination diet means severely restricting the foods you eat, sometimes for many months, then reintroducing them to see which chemicals are tolerated. Between each chemical test, you need to wait a week or more for symptoms to settle.
Don’t start an elimination diet on your own – it’s important to get expert guidance from a specialist or an Accredited Practising Dietitian who specialises in this area to keep your diet as balanced as possible while systematically working though the process.
- Expert food sensitivity dietitian, Joan Breakey, offers a range of her books and resources for investigating diets on her website (www.dietinvestigation.com).
- ASCIA’s website (www.allergy.org.au) has resources and factsheets.
- Friendly Food (Murdoch Books), written by expert dietitian Anne Swain, and specialist allergy doctors Velencia Soutter and Robert Loblay from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit in Sydney, gives low-chemical recipes, as well as easy-to-use food chemical listings and advice (www.sswahs.nsw.gov.au/rpa/allergy).
- Many large teaching hospitals have allergy and intolerance specialist units, with websites filled with useful information.
- Visit the Dietitians Association of Australia website, www.daa.asn.au, to find a dietitian in your area who specialises in food sensitivity.