January 01, 2020

Can artificial flavors and colors in foods cause itching or other reactions?

Q: I used to consistently experience itching all over my body after meals. Then I started carefully reading nutrition labels and cutting food additives such as artificial flavors and colors out of my diet, which seems to help. Does this mean I'm allergic or sensitive to food additives?

A: According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food additives are any ingredients or substances — such as preservatives, vitamins, minerals, artificial sweeteners, antioxidants, spices, flavors and colors — that are added to food. All food additives must be approved by the FDA. This means the FDA has found that these additives meet its standard of "reasonable certainty of no harm."

It's common to confuse allergic reactions and intolerances. A food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. A food allergy can be severe or life threatening and require immediate medical care. By contrast, symptoms of food intolerance are generally less serious and limited to digestive problems, such as nausea or cramping.

It is possible to develop an intolerance — sometimes called a sensitivity — to a food additive, but this appears uncommon. There also have been rare reports of true allergic reactions, but it's more common to have an allergic reaction to foods — such as peanuts or seafood — than a food additive.

A few additives have more well-established associations with negative reactions. For example, sulfites are used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods and wine, and can trigger asthma attacks. The dye FD&C Yellow No. 5 — also known as tartrazine — may rarely cause hives. The red food dye carmine and other additives have been linked to a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.