Food Chemicals That May Cause Asthma Symptoms
Last updated: April 2022
Sometimes food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities may act as triggers for asthma attacks. Common food allergies include dairy, gluten, shellfish, nuts, and sesame. These are all required to be labeled on food packaging. In addition to these common allergens, certain food chemicals and additives could also act as an asthma trigger. Unfortunately, there is no requirement for these to be labeled.
What are food chemicals and additives?
Food chemicals and additives are added to food products to enhance or add a certain quality. An ingredient may be added to make the color brighter or preserve the product for longer. One of the most common food additives that you have likely heard of is sulfites, which are added to wine to preserve its shelf life and prevent the wine from oxidizing quickly.
Food chemicals and additives as asthma triggers
Food chemicals and additives are not typically listed as allergens like the common allergens on a food label. This is because, for most people, these ingredients do not cause an allergic reaction. However, a small number of people may experience that certain food chemicals and additives trigger an allergic reaction and asthma symptoms. The more you consume the ingredient, the worse your symptoms might get. According to the Department of Health's (of Victoria, Australia) "Better Health" website, these are additives that could potentially cause an asthma flare-up or symptoms:1
- Food colorings - This additive is typically the rarest to have a reaction to. Food coloring is added to baked goods, candy, beverages, and some packaged food products. Two food colorings that are known to be allergens are "yellow 5" and "carmine".2
- Sulfites - These can be natural and added. Sulfites naturally occur in dried fruits, as well as wine, but are also added to dried foods and drinks similar to wine. According to the FDA, sulfites must be listed on food labels when their concentration in the food or beverage is ≥10 parts per million total sulfur dioxide.4
- Salicylates - These are not added to food, but are naturally found in honey, beer, coffee, and tomato paste. Aspirin is a salicylate, and about 10 percent of people living with asthma can be sensitive to it.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) - This additive is used to increase savory flavor in snacks, sauces, and broths. Some studies have found that there is a slight correlation between a high amount of MSG and asthma symptoms, other studies have found this to be inconclusive.3
Importance of awareness
Most people will not experience an allergic reaction or asthma symptoms from food additives. However, there is a small percentage of people who do, so it is important to be aware of this and validate the experience of others. Although food chemicals and additives are not labeled as allergens on packaging (with the exception of sulfites), they can be spotted in the ingredient list. If you believe there is an unknown food triggering your asthma or an allergic reaction, be sure to bring this up with your doctor.
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