Adverse Reactions to Food Additives

N Engl Reg Allergy Proc. Nov-Dec 1986;7(6):533-42. doi: 10.2500/108854186779045421.


There are thousands of agents that are intentionally added to the food that we consume. These include preservatives, stabilizers, conditioners, thickeners, colorings, flavorings, sweeteners, antioxidants, etc. etc. Yet only a surprisingly small number have been associated with hypersensitivity reactions. Amongst all the additives, FD&C dyes have been most frequently associated with adverse reactions. Tartrazine is the most notorious of them all; however, critical review of the medical literature and current Scripps Clinic studies would indicate that tartrazine has been confirmed to be at best only occasionally associated with flares of urticaria or asthma. There is no convincing evidence in the literature of reactivity to the other azo or nonazo dyes. This can also be said of BHA/BHT, nitrites/nitrates and sorbates. Parabens have been shown to elicit IgE mediated hypersensitivity reactions when used as pharmaceutical preservatives; however, as with the other additives noted above, ingested parabens have only occasionally been associated with adverse reactions. MSG, the cause of the 'Chinese restaurant syndrome' has only been linked to asthma in one report. Sulfiting agents used primarily as food fresheners and to control microbial growth in fermented beverages have been established as the cause of any where from mild to severe and even fatal reactions in at least 5% of the asthmatic population. Other reactions reported to follow sulfite ingestion include anaphylaxis, gastro intestinal complaints and dermatological eruptions. The prevalence of these non asthmatic reactions is unknown. The mechanism of sulfite sensitive asthma is also unknown but most likely involves hyperreactivity to inhale SO2 in the great majority of cases; however, there are reports of IgE mediated reactions and other sulfite sensitive asthmatics have been found with low levels of sulfite oxidase; necessary to oxidize endogenous sulfite to sulfate.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Angioedema / immunology
  • Aspartame / adverse effects
  • Asthma / immunology
  • Coloring Agents / adverse effects
  • Food Additives / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity / etiology*
  • Nitrates / adverse effects
  • Parabens / adverse effects
  • Sodium Glutamate / adverse effects
  • Sulfites / adverse effects
  • Tartrazine / adverse effects
  • Urticaria / immunology


  • Coloring Agents
  • Food Additives
  • Nitrates
  • Parabens
  • Sulfites
  • Tartrazine
  • Sodium Glutamate
  • Aspartame