Red and Yellow Dyes May Be Causing Your Stomach Aches

Food Allergies to Dyes, MSG, and Sulfites

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If you feel ill after eating a red or yellow snow cone, after a Chinese restaurant meal, or following a glass of red wine, you're not imagining your symptoms. While foods such as wheat, milk, soy, and peanuts are common sources of food allergies, it's also possible to be allergic to food additives such as food dyes, MSG, and sulfites.

While great care is taken by the U.S. Food and Drug Association to ensure that all ingredients in foods sold in supermarkets are safe to eat for the majority of people, there are many people who remain sensitive to some of the additives. Food dye allergies are rare, being found in only about 4% of people with allergies, but they still can be the source of great concern.

Additives That May Cause Reactions

Allergic reactions have been found to occur in some people after they consume three dyes in particular: carmine, FD&C Yellow #5 and annatto.

Carmine, also known as natural red 4, is actually derived from the scale of dried insects. While this seems odd, it has been used in food since the 16th century. Red dye #4 is found in foods such as burgers and sausages, drinks and candy. Typically it is found in foods with shades of red, pink or purple. An allergy to carmine has been reported to result in both minor and significant reactions, including anaphylaxis.

FD&C Yellow #5, also known as tartrazine, is one of two yellow food dye allergies. The symptoms associated with this allergy include reports of hives and swelling. This dye is often found in candy, canned vegetables, cheese, ice cream, ketchup, and hot dogs.

Annatto is the other yellow food dye that has been associated with allergies. It comes from the seeds of the achiote tree and it is responsible for giving foods a yellow-orange color. Reports of several cases of anaphylactic reactions have been associated with this dye. Annatto can be found in cereals, cheeses, snack foods, and drinks.

It is important for those with food dye allergies to realize that this allergy is not limited to just food and medications. Many personal care products, such as soaps and lotions, as well as cosmetics like eyeshadow, blush and nail polish, can also contain these same dyes. The same is true for household products as well, such as cleaning supplies, crayons, and shampoo. Being familiar with how to read labels and what products to pay attention to are both very important for those with food dye allergies.

Those who are having food dye reactions may experience mild or severe reactions. Among the most common symptoms, you will find reactions such as headaches, itchy skin, swelling of the face or hives. Severe reactions are similar to those of other food allergy reactions such as difficulty breathing, dizziness, fainting, low blood pressure, and trouble breathing. As in other allergic reactions, anaphylaxis can result, so immediate medical attention should be sought at the first sign of a reaction.

MSG and Sulfites: Potential Problems

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer and is often found to be an additive in many foods or used in cooking. When consumed in large amounts it can cause adverse effects on those who are sensitive to it. Among the signs of a reaction, you might experience a feeling of warmth, flushing, headaches and chest pain. Quite often MSG is found in Chinese cuisine, so those sensitive to this additive must request that it is excluded from the food preparation.

Another additive that may cause an allergic reaction is sulfites, which might occur naturally or be added to enhance crispness or to prevent it from spoiling. Sulfites are often used as a preservative in many foods and beverages. Sulfites can be found in such products as wine, beer, and dried fruits. For those with sulfite allergies or intolerances, consuming a sulfite-containing product in large amounts may lead to in-breathing. This is of even greater concern for those with asthma, who already are predisposed to difficulty in breathing.

While food allergies are often diagnosed through blood tests, there are no tests available to diagnose a food dye, MSG or sulfite allergy. For this reason, one must keep a reliable diary of foods they eat and reactions that may result. This will then help them to determine which food additive may be the cause of such a reaction. Don't try to diagnose yourself; instead, talk to your doctor about your symptoms and about what testing she may recommend.

A Word from Verywell

Unfortunately, the only way to treat any of these allergies is to avoid foods that contain the problematic ingredients. It is important to be sure to read labels not only on foods and medications but on personal, household and cosmetic items as well. Once you are sure to remove these from your lifestyle, you should be symptom-free.

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Additional Reading
  • Nish WA et al. Anaphylaxis to annatto dye: a case report. Annals of Allergy. 1991 Feb;66(2):129-31.