Allergies make food selection a serious matter

Staff writer

KARLEEN Wickham is very concerned about what is in her food.

She has to be. The 35-year-old Roanoke County resident lists sulfites, nitrates, sodium benzoate and yellow dye No. 5 among her allergies.

After a lifetime of exposure to products containing these additives - sodium benzoate is used as a preservative in margarine and soft drinks, for instance - Wickham had a severe reaction two years ago.

"I became very Ill one day after eating dinner," -which was macaroni and cheese, canned tomatoes and cauliflower, she said. The packaged macaroni dinner had yellow dye in it and the cauliflower probably had been treated with a sulfite preservative, she figured later.

Wlckham said her throat constricted and she began having trouble breathing. She felt flushed, dizzy and weak. "It was horrible," Wickham said.

An emergency squad took her to the hospital. "When I got there, they thought I was having a heart attack,’ she said, because of her chest pain.

Later, a doctor told her she had indigestion and nerve problems. She kept having the attacks and "they just decided I was a nervous wreck" and gave her Valium.

Finally, an allergist she consulted told her she should avoid foods containing sulfites.

That turned out to be easier said than done. Sometimes she failed to read labels, assuming the product did not contain sulfites, and sometimes the food was not labeled.

She found that food vendors were not very helpful. "They don’t know what’s in it, either," she said. They would swear that their product contained no preservatives, but when she told them she lead to know because of her severe allergy, they would back down from their claims.

"I just kept getting worse and worse," she said. She lost 60 pounds.

Finally, she was put on a diet restricting all preservatives and after a month, she said, "I started getting better."

She still has to deal with the anxiety of wondering whether the next thing she eats or drinks will set off an attack, but she has found an aid in sulfite test strips from Center Laboratories in New York. The chemically treated plastic strips, which change color in the presence of sulfites, are dipped into samples of suspect food. Wickham said she has found sulfites in fresh potatoes from the grocery store and in antihistamine capsules.

The state and federal governments have since banned the use of sulfites on raw fruits and vegetables. Sulfites may still be found in such packaged products as canned soups, with juices, gelatins, salad dressings and canned and frozen vegetables, but products containing detectable levels of sulfites now have to be labeled.

But Wickham rarely eats out now; she grows most of the vegetables she eats. "I just don’t like to risk it," she said.

And it not only is sulfites that worry her. "I’m really concerned about any kind of chemical in our food," she said.

Sulfite reactions are more common in people with asthma, who already have irritable airways, said Dr. Lawrence Schwartz, chief of allergy and immunology in the Department of Medicine at Medical College of Virginia. The sulfite gets converted to sulfuric acid when ingested and some of the fumes are inhaled, Schwartz said.

The Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, Calif., and estimates that 500,000 asthmatics suffer from sulfite sensitivity.

"I don’t think that preservative reactions are very common," Schwartz said, adding that they are less common than food allergies.

Per capita, Americans take in 6 milligrams of sulfites daily. Roanoke allergist Paul F. White said, adding that a liter of beer contains 10 milligrams of sulfites. The subjects of one study ingested up to 400 milligrams with few effects, he said.

"It does not appear that a great number of people are at risk," White said. "That doesn’t mean it’s a minor problem." His patients who cannot tolerate sulfites usually complain of breathing problems, wheezing, coughing. nausea, cramping and diarrhea after eating.

There has been some work indicating that sulfite intolerance may be an enzyme problem, White said, but "we still have a lot to learn."

Wickham said she would recommend Center Laboratories’ Sulfitest for people who cannot tolerate sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfate and metabisulfite and potassium bisulfite and metabisulfite. A container of 100 strips costs $20, plus $2.50 postage and handling, and may be ordered from Center Laboratories, 35 Channel Drive, Port Washington, N.Y. 11050.

Published in the Roanoke Times and World News, Wednesday, Oct. 29 and Thursday, Oct.30, 1986

Return to Illness Page

Return to Sulfite Facts Page

Return to Links Page