Food Additives - Allergies, Symptoms, and Treatments

Although the data is still scarce, we know that there are a significant number of allergies to food additives. It isn't simple intolerance and can cause immune reactions that could be life-threatening.
Food Additives - Allergies, Symptoms, and Treatments

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Allergy to food additives is a problem that often goes unnoticed because people can confuse it with food intolerance. These are different phenomena, however, even though both have a common origin and similar symptoms.

When it comes to food intolerance, the digestive system becomes sensitive because the person has difficulty assimilating a food or food additive properly. In regard to food additives allergies, and to food in general, the immune system reacts disproportionately to it. This can, in fact, be life-threatening.

The population, in general, pays more attention to food intolerances or food allergies than to food additive allergies. This is because the latter are present in most processed foods and those who consume them ignore their harmful potential.

Food additives

Food additives are substances added to foods during their processing. They modify them in terms of flavor, texture, color, aroma, or shelf life, among others. Manufacturers add these substances with the approval of the FDA or other health authorities and usually list them on the product label.

Allergy to food additives occurs when the body identifies them as potentially dangerous. Thus, it creates an immune reaction to attack the substance with symptoms that can range from mild to extremely serious.

Symptoms of allergies to food additives

A woman with a rash on her back.

Allergies to food additives usually have symptoms in the respiratory system or on the skin. In more severe cases it leads to a serious reaction known as anaphylaxis.

The symptoms of allergy to food additives can vary. However, the most frequent are those of a respiratory nature, especially asthma and rhinitis as well as cutaneous. They mainly appear as urticaria and other forms of dermatitis.

As mentioned above, symptoms can also evolve to generate a serious reaction called anaphylaxis, which is life-threatening. This happens quickly and violently and it’s due to the massive release of histamine and other substances. In addition, it constricts the airways and could lead to death.

Presently, researchers believe that between 5 and 10% of cases of chronic urticaria are due to allergies to food additives. The figure could be higher, however. In fact, there are currently several limitations to the diagnosis of this problem. But, in general, intolerance to certain foods can be a suspicious signal that an allergist should review.

The potential risk of some food additives

All food additives can cause adverse reactions but some of them have a higher potential risk. They are:

  • Antioxidants. Doctors report cases of urticaria and atopic dermatitis due to the ingestion of foods with industrial antioxidants. In a few cases, it produces bronchospasms.
  • Sulfur dioxide and sulfites. The latter can cause respiratory symptoms such as rhinitis or exacerbation in asthmatics. They could also lead to dermatitis, hives, and digestive problems.
  • Nitrates and nitrites. These can aggravate atopic dermatitis and lead to cases with severe allergic reactions.
  • Benzoic acid and benzoates. These are the most common additives in allergic reactions. They exacerbate atopic dermatitis and asthma, hives, headache, migraine, concentration difficulties, and hyperactivity.
  • Methylcellulose. This one could lead to adverse gastrointestinal reactions.
  • Jelly E441. It’s a thickener that can cause serious allergic reactions.
  • Guar gum and gum tragacanth. The former can cause gastrointestinal problems. The latter can worsen atopic dermatitis or cause hives.
  • Monosodium glutamate. This one can cause severe allergic reactions.
  • Dyes. They can cause mild, moderate, or, in rare cases, severe allergic reactions.


A board of junk food.

To control food additive allergies you must avoid the processed foods that contain them. Instead, opt for fresh, natural foods free of pesticides.

There’s no effective treatment for these kinds of allergies with the exception of eliminating them from your diet. However, this could be somewhat difficult as there are many foods with additives on the market.

It’s made more difficult by the fact that additives aren’t always listed by name but by a reference number. It’s important to research the name of the components that correspond to a number or code listed in a food label. The best measure, then, is to avoid packaged processed food, especially those of industrial origin.

The less industrially processed a food is, the fewer additives it’ll contain. The best diet is the one where you eat only fresh and natural ingredients. In addition to this, you must avoid the consumption of food in which the nutritional information is shady. We recommend that you simply refrain from even trying them in such cases.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Toche, P. (2004). Alergia a alimentos y aditivos. Revista Médica Clínica las Condes, 15(3).
  • Metcalfe, D. D., Sampson, H. A., & Simon, R. A. (2009). Food Allergy: Adverse Reactions to Foods and Food AdditivesFood Allergy: Adverse Reactions to Foods and Food Additives (pp. 1–613). Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  • Gultekin, F., & Doguc, D. K. (2013). Allergic and immunologic reactions to food additives. Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology45(1), 6–29.
  • Wilson, B. G., & Bahna, S. L. (2005). Adverse reactions to food additives. Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.