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Asthma and Food Additives: A Surprising Connection

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This is adapted from a recent press release by the Feingold Association


“Most parents don’t realize that several widely used preservatives and synthetic food dyes have been shown to trigger constriction of the airways and other asthmatic symptoms in sensitive children,” said Jane Hersey, National Director of the nonprofit Feingold Association (www.feingold.org), which helps families use a low-additive diet developed by allergist Dr. Ben Feingold.


A 2012 study published in The International Archives of Allergy and Immunology concluded that the increased consumption of synthetic additives, particularly food dyes and preservatives, may have contributed to this rise.


A massive new study published in Thorax, involving nearly 2 million children and teens from more than 100 countries, also found a correlation between consumption of an additive-laden fast food diet and increased levels of asthma, eczema and hay fever.


In the United States, where asthma was relatively uncommon in the 1950s, it now affects about 1 in 10 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “The typical child’s diet has changed enormously over the last few decades and is very different from what children ate 50 years ago,” said Hersey, a former teacher and Head Start consultant.


The connection between synthetic food additives and asthma is not a new one. In the 1980's, the Food and Drug Administration required that the common food dye Yellow 5 be listed on ingredient labels, due in part to the danger this dye poses to asthmatics. In addition, a 2004 study published in the International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology found that the preservative sodium benzoate can trigger asthmatic symptoms, and a 2007 study published inToxicology and Applied Pharmacologyconcluded that the common preservative butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) may worsen them.


Ironically, the role that some preservatives play in triggering asthma was discovered when some asthmatic children experienced an immediate worsening of their symptoms after they inhaled their anti-asthma medications. It was found that the sulfite and sodium benzoate preservatives in these drugs were actually exacerbating the children’s asthma, and when the additives were removed from the medications, the symptoms disappeared.


How can parents determine if synthetic food additives may be triggering asthmatic symptoms in their children?


If they experience shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing or other asthma-like symptoms after eating artificially preserved or colored foods, they might be sensitive to the additives. If this is the case, try replacing the suspect foods with more natural versions that do not contain the additives and see if the symptoms reoccur. Parents can be helped with this by the Feingold Association’s Foodlist and Shopping Guide, which lists thousands of low-additive versions of brand-name foods.






Zaknun D. et al. Potential role of antioxidant food supplements, preservatives and colorants in the pathogenesis of allergy and asthma. International Archives of Allergy and Immunology, 2012, Vol. 157(2), pages 113-124. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21986480)


Ellwood P. et al. Do fast foods cause asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis and eczema? Global findings from the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) Phase Three. Thorax, 2013, Vol. 68(4), pages 351-360. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.gov/pubmed/23319429)


Asthma in the U.S., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vital Signs, May 2011.


Balatsinou L. et al. Asthma worsened by benzoate contained in some antiasthmatic drugs. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 2004, Vol. 17(2), pages 225-226. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15171824)


Yamaki K. et al. Enhancement of allergic responses in vivo and in vitro by butylated hydroxytoluene. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 2007, Vol. 223(2), pages 164-172. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17604070)


The nonprofit Feingold Association (www.feingold.org / 800-321-3287) helps families implement a low-additive Feingold Diet. Press release contact: David Guzo, Ph.D., Susan Guzo (570) 639-5030

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Hi Sheila,


Wow! We found out the hard way that it is exactly the sulfites, sulfur dioxides, and sodium benzoates that are a huge problem in asthma.


When I first married my husband, in 1986, he was on two inhalers for asthma! But for the last 26 years of our marriage, he has

been off of the inhalers. What did we do? I believe we stumbled (through trial and error) and, without knowing it, reproduced results that you are now citing.


First, we allergy proofed most of the house: took out old carpets, took down old drapes, encased mattress/pillows in dust-mite proof materials, etc.

There are a lot of websites that tell how to do this.


Then we looked at diet and food choices. I have always had a life-long interest in nutrition and healthy eating--so I completely revamped what my one-time

bachelor husband was eating. Gone was most fast and highly processed "convenience" food--you know the stuff loaded with unpronounceable chemicals.

I cooked real food from scratch, mainly vegetarian, and in the process I must have eliminated the worst offenders.


This point hit home like a sledge hammer about a year ago: my husband bought some dried fruit that had been treated with sulfur dioxide

(for color retention? for asthma attacks? Why in the world do we need this stuff on our food!!). Anyway, within minutes, he was gasping for air and couldn't breathe!! He had a true asthma attack and it was scary because I hadn't seen him go through this in years. Some time later, we again gave him a small sample of the dried fruit with sulfur dioxide and he again immediately reacted with an asthma attack. We both realized that, for the most part, we eat whole real foods, without preservatives--and this must have been keeping him asthma free.


I have always religiously read labels to eliminate all food coloring, flavorings, and preservatives, etc. If a label reads beyond a 5th-grade science book in chemistry--then I don't need it in my cooking! It's a sad fact today, that if you don't read labels, you could end up pretty sick. I'm also amazed that Benadryl,

which is used to treat histamine allergies has Red Dye in some of its formulations--a dye which I know our son violently reacts to. Thank goodness I found

dye-free Benadryl.


Sheial, thanks for bringing this to our attention. Again, Wow.


Hopeful 2 (a mom and research librarian)

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