Updated 26 July 2012

Allergic to preservatives?

Does your nose close up when you have a cold drink? Or do you start to wheeze when you eat pickles? You could be suffering from an undiagnosed preservative allergy.

Does your nose close up when you have a cold drink? Or do you start to wheeze when you eat pickles? Do you have a post nasal drip which gets worse when you eat snacks? Or even suffer a severe and sudden asthma attack?

All these symptoms could be due to preservative allergy. There are thousands of people who suffer frightening asthma attacks or drown in mucous year in and year out who are probably allergic to preservatives. To control these distressing conditions those who suffer from them must learn to identify sources of preservatives and to avoid them assiduously.

Why preservatives?
Preservatives are used in foods and beverages to do what their name implies - preserve food and drinks against bacterial attack and other forms of deterioration. So actually, preservatives perform a very necessary function in keeping our food supply safe. It is unfortunate that some individuals are allergic or sensitive to these compounds.

Preservatives such as sugar, table salt and vinegar have been used for thousands of years and generally don’t cause negative reactions. The more ‘modern’ preservatives like sulphur dioxide, sodium benzoate, nitrates, sorbic acid and pimaricin are all implicated in various allergic reactions. So is tartrazine, a bright yellow-orange colorant used in cool drinks, custard powder, cheese and snacks.

So while preservatives generally fulfil a much needed function in preventing spoilage and food deterioration, they can act like ‘poisons’ when a person who is sensitive to preservatives eats or drinks a food or beverage that contains one of these compounds.

Allergenic preservatives
Sulphur dioxide, sodium benzoate and tartrazine are well known culprits that cause wheeziness and ‘tight chests’ in asthmatics. Other people develop sore, scratchy throats or skin rashes and hives.

Sulphur dioxide
If you have experienced an adverse reaction to sulphur dioxide then you need to avoid the following foods:

  • Fruit juices, and dried fruit, which are treated with sulphur dioxide to prevent oxidation
  • Dried sausage or ‘droëwors’, and boerewors, both of which are also preserved with sulphur
  • Beer and wine (always remember that wine barrels are cleaned out with sulphur dioxide)
  • Pickles and achaar and certain sauces,
  • Hamburger patties

The best solution is to read each and every food label before you buy the product.

Warning: Keep your eyes open for ‘sodium metabisulphite, potassium metabisulphite, sodium bisulphite, potassium bisulphite, or sodium and potassium sulphite’, which are different versions of sulphur dioxide and will cause the same reactions in susceptible individuals.

Sodium benzoate

Foods preserved with sodium benzoate include:

  • Soft drinks
  • Fruit juices
  • Foods that contain fruit such as puddings/cake mixes

Once again read those food and drink labels - you could be saving your life.

Just to illustrate how prevalent the use of these two preservatives is, I’d like to suggest when next you go shopping in your favourite supermarket that you take time to browse through the shelves and see how quickly you can find 10 items which contain sulphur dioxide or sodium benzoate. You will be surprised how rapidly you can identify 10 or more foods or drinks, which contain these two potentially allergenic substances.

A few tips to help you cope
If you or any members of your family suffer from sulphur or benzoate sensitivity steer clear of all drinks except fruit juices, which state "No preservatives" on the label. Beer, wines, especially white wines, cold drinks and those frozen fruit juice lollies are all laced with sulphur dioxide or sodium/potassium benzoate.

Avoid processed food products, which contain dried fruit. Dried fruit is treated with sulphur dioxide to preserve the product and sometimes also to bleach the fruit (sultanas). Food which may contain dried fruit, such as muesli mixes and yoghurt with dried fruit pieces, chocolates with dried fruit bits, chutneys, pickles, cake mixes, peanut and raisin mixes, and instant fruit sauces made from dried apricots and peaches, may contain sulphur and trigger a reaction.

Be careful of foods that have a long shelf-life and do not require refrigeration. The chances are good that these foods contain sodium benzoate or have been treated with sulphur.

When eating in a restaurant be alert to the possibility that certain dishes may contain ingredients that have been preserved with sulphur dioxide or sodium benzoate. Check with the waiter or the maitre 'd before you order items like "Cape curry with apricot sambal".

Always read your food labels and if in doubt, avoid that food or drink. Rather be safe, than sorry.

- (Dr I.V. van Heerden)


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Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies. obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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