Elusive food allergies
May 31, 2005 8:18 AM   Subscribe

I have elusive food allergies, and I'm looking for strategies. (Yes, I've seen an allergist, who was less help than I'd like.)

I've had at least two full blown non-anaphylactic reactions to Indian food (hives, full-body itching, etc...). All suspect spices turned up negative on skin patch tests. On several occasions since, I've had minor reactions to other spices - I get flushed and my heart rate goes up, but it fades after five minutes or so if I stop eating the problem. I've recently traced this kind of reaction to something in Old Bay seasoning. My allergist's answer was "We don't know what caused the first kind of reaction, so come back if it happens again. For the second thing, that's an MSG-type reaction and it's not possible to identify what's actually causing it."

Everyone else I know who has food allergies knows what they're allergic to, so I find it endlessly frustrating to not be able to ask that certain things not be included, and then suddenly end up in front of a plate of food I can't eat.

Do you have something like this? Do you know what causes it? How did you find out what it was?
posted by Caviar to Health & Fitness (18 answers total)
I can't offer much, but am very interested in what you might find out. I have some bizarre food sensitivities, but have yet to figure out which foods cause what. So far I think I've narrowed it down to tomatoes, garlic, msg or anything fermented like vinegars (which might include Indian food).
I sometimes become flushed or in very strange times the inside of my nose becomes horrendously itchy for a few minutes and then returns to normal. Doesn't always happen with the same foods so I'm at a loss.
posted by Constant Reader at 8:28 AM on May 31, 2005

It might not be a specific food but a chemical additive/fertilizer/whatever that is sometimes present in certain foods. My daughter had a similar problem when she had Chinese food once, and now she's supposed to carry epinephrine with her, just in case, but that was about three years ago, and it's never happened again. If it is an additive and not the food, there's probably no way to track it down, especially since it seems to be present only rarely.
posted by anapestic at 8:52 AM on May 31, 2005


Well, your allergist seems to be telling the truth. The first reaction is an allergy obviously. I guess the only way you can pin it down, save for going through a further battery of skin tests, is to make the curries at home and by process of elimination, work out which spice causes the problems ---- yes, I realize this is big workaround but there doesn't seem to be any other way to specifically identify a culprit. I'd take it slow with this so you don't bring it on excessively.*

All of the sites about MSG-related problems refer to the symptoms as being a food intolerance and not really an allergy. I'm wondering if there aren't additives in Old Bay that aren't listed -- anticaking agents and food flavour enhancers. Perhaps there's more on the container itself? Or you could email them and ask them about their additives. There's a few related suspects listed here and you could otherwise pitch a question to them or to this guy.
[*I guess if you know all of the curry herbs -- as long as the other ingredients were tolerated fine in other circumstances -- then you could either google each of those with 'allergy' and 'food intolerance' or add them to the list to ask the Doctors at the linked sites]
(and fwiw -- the 2 reactions you describe are almost certainly not related, from your descriptions)
posted by peacay at 8:53 AM on May 31, 2005

peacay's links also mention the food dye Yellow #5 which is present in quite a few items. It can cause hives and itching.
posted by Constant Reader at 9:03 AM on May 31, 2005

Response by poster: Paprika seems to be a common thread, although it's definitely not paprika itself (my mother's roast chicken has TONS of paprika in it, and I've eaten that recently with no problems). I suppose it could be a specific variety of paprika, but that seems less likely.

Is it possible to have sensitivities to multiple ingredients in combination? I've never heard of such a thing, but I can't think of any reason why not.

It's definitely not MSG itself, but a similar reaction to something else (my allergist confirmed this).
posted by Caviar at 9:16 AM on May 31, 2005

Caviar - are you looking at this in terms of both reactions being caused by the same thing? As I said, I'd be really surprised.

Paprika isn't in curry, nor is mace or pimento (of course, this depends on who makes the curry). I can't help but smile talking about food to a person named Caviar :)
posted by peacay at 9:55 AM on May 31, 2005

Have you tried keeping a food diary? Someone I know had elusive hive-causing allergies that he couldn't sort out until he had a major reaction that was traceable (to aspirin). It turned out that he didn't always have the same allergic reaction when exposed to the allergans because they needed to have been "built up" over time. So when he was having a lot of the allergans (in his case: tea, certain spices, tomatoes), he'd have daily/weekly reactions. But after he switched to coffee/herbal tea and limited his tomato intake, he could eat spicy food again without getting hives.
posted by xo at 10:52 AM on May 31, 2005

It is very possible that it is a combination of food items and not one specific thing causing your reaction.

One doctor explained it to me as a combination lock that has to be done in a specific order. You might have an allergic reaction if you eat certain foods in a particular order and not if you change the order you eat them. This is obviously simplifing the issue, but you get the point.

Also, think back and try to remember if there was any physical exertion shortly before or after eating the food because this can cause different results as well.

I've had one fairly serious anaphylactic attack which got me on steriods in the emergency room real quick and another less major attack of endless vomitting and racing heart beat and temperature.

My skin tests all came back negative except for a slight sign with sesame seeds which is positvely the agent that cause my 2 big attacks. Just remembered my 3rd reaction was after some shake and baked chicken which we did a skin test with the actual shake and bake, but that came back clear as well. These skin tests aren't perfect.

I also have similar reactions to you with getting flushed and heart rate going up and I'm completely at a loss myself. I think for me it is mostly just being slightly nervous about what I am eating because this seems to only happen when I'm eating outside of my home.

Maybe you're just high-strung when eating these things?
posted by gfroese at 11:02 AM on May 31, 2005

That word "spices" is always suspect in my mind, as is "seasoning." I have a really bad time with MSG, too. These are the best resources I've found to identify MSG in food. Pay particular attention to the "Hidden Sources" of MSG. Any kind of seasoning mix, including stock cubes in soup, and any kind of frozen food is likely to have MSG. I really don't eat much in the way of prepackaged foods anymore. I never go to those chain restaurants like Applebee's or KFC or Chili's. Almost everything they serve has some form of MSG or another. Seriously. Those places are bad news. The safest thing on the menu at those places is a hamburger or a garden salad with oil and vinegar. Canned soups are bad news, too. I don't have the same reaction you do. I get migraines, but finding all this out took me ages. I hope this helps.

And yes, technically it's intolerance, not an allergy, but it still HURTS!!!!!
posted by abbyladybug at 11:05 AM on May 31, 2005

Curry is not one single dish. Hmph!

(And yes, mace is used in certain dishes. It's a familiar ingredient in Indian cooking.)

Since our food is quite complex and can often use a vast range of ingredients in a single dish (which naturally also varies from cook to cook), trying to pinpoint the specific ingredient giving you trouble may be almost impossible.

If you are patient, you can try making some Indian food at home, starting with the simpler recipes and then working your way up. You don't need large quantities.
posted by madman at 12:53 PM on May 31, 2005

This may not jibe with your experience at all, but this sounds much like the reaction that a friend of mine has with any member of the nightshade family, including tomatoes, green peppers, eggplant, and to a lesser degree, potatoes.
posted by desuetude at 1:53 PM on May 31, 2005

My wife gets migraines with "red" foods, like certain Indian dishes or sweet and sour Chinese. It doesn't appear to be MSG, but a dye or the sodium are potential candidates. I feel your frustration--narrowing it down is really tough.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 2:09 PM on May 31, 2005

Response by poster: Definitely no problems with nightshades.

Many of the foods I have a problem with are red (paprika-laden, particularly), but I also have no problems with many other things that are red. Once, it happened with a caesar salad, which was totally unexpected, but most of the time it's something very spicy.

The list includes:
- mediterranean eggs with mixed spices (very red) and lamb sausage
- caesar salad
- baltimore crabs with old bay
- a spicy thai noodle dish

But no problems with many other similar dishes, so I'm guessing it's a bit player, not one of the main popular ingredients. I'm having real trouble finding a common thing, so I find the unknown additive theory interesting.

A friend of mine is a very talented Indian chef, and has offered to help me go through some of the more likely candidates, but his best theory is "probably something in a prepackaged mix and you'll never be able to identify it".

Ah well.
posted by Caviar at 3:43 PM on May 31, 2005

You might investigate concomitant factors as well. Maybe a cutting board? That old wooden salad bowl? I finally traced allergic reactions to ancient rubber gloves I occasionally used to clean the kitchen. It wasn't the latex, but likely the moulds growing in the moist interior. No problem with disposable latex gloves.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:05 PM on May 31, 2005

Apologies madman - I'm a curry afficionado (and cook) from way back - I typed before checking mace - I'd never used it and hadn't seen in a recipe.
posted by peacay at 7:48 PM on May 31, 2005

Could it make any difference how fresh the spices are? I would think after it's been in a jar forever, some things would change in the chemistry, that's why they tell you to throw out old spices.
One of the red dyes in common use is actually made from tiny red insects, which certainly sounds like something you could be sensitive to or intolerant of.
Yeah, I'm reaching here, but then the usual suspects aren't jumping up and waving.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 4:49 AM on June 1, 2005

I read a book recently about genetically modified (GMO) food, and how people can be allergic to modified versions of food, when they aren't allergic to the regular versions of the same food.

For example, a number of people have had allergic reactions to genetically modified corn. If you had this allergy, your skin test to corn would be normal, and regular corn would give you no problem, but eating genetically modified corn would give you an allergic reaction. However, there is no labeling requirement in the united states, so if you buy a product that contains corn (taco shells, for example) you have no way of knowing whether the corn is genetically modified.

I don't know how common this type of allergy is, but it seems like a possibility since your skin tests are normal. Your allergist in the US probably won't know much, if anything, about allergies to GMO foods, but you should find lots of info online.
posted by clarissajoy at 2:36 PM on June 1, 2005

Mod note: Final update from the OP:
I have since discovered through single-ingredient experimentation that the ingredient in question was indeed nutmeg/mace.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 3:52 PM on June 4, 2013

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