Hidden allergies to spices — in foods, perfumes, makeup, and other products — strike as many as 3 percent of the world’s people, according to a new study that suggests the condition is far more common than previously believed.
The study, presented by allergists at a recent meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in Anaheim, Calif., noted spices are among the most widely used ingredients found in foods, cosmetics, and dental products. Yet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate spices, so they often are not noted on food labels — making it difficult for allergic individuals to identify or avoid them.
What’s more, spice allergies may often go undiagnosed because there is no reliable allergy skin test or blood test for them.
"While spice allergy seems to be rare, with the constantly increasing use of spices in the American diet and a variety of cosmetics, we anticipate more and more Americans will develop this allergy," said allergist Sami Bahna, M.D., ACAAI past president. "Patients with spice allergy often have to go through extreme measures to avoid the allergen. This can lead to strict dietary avoidance, low quality of life and sometimes malnutrition."
Dr. Bahna said women are more likely to develop spice allergy because makeup, body oils, toothpaste, and fragrances often contain one or more spices. Common allergy triggers include cinnamon and garlic, but everything from black pepper to vanilla can also cause reactions. Several spice blends contain more than a dozen spices, increasing the chances of an allergic reaction from eating, touching, or breathing them.
Symptoms range from sneezing to a life-threating allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. Dr. Bahna said spice allergy should be suspected in individuals that have multiple reactions to unrelated foods, or those who react to foods when commercially prepared but not when cooked at home.
"Boiling, roasting, frying and other forms of applying heat to spices may reduce allergy causing agents, but can also enhance them depending on the spice," said Dr. Bahna. "Because of this allergy's complexity, allergists often recommend a treatment plan that includes strict avoidance which can be a major task."
Patients can keep track of what foods and other products trigger allergies at MyNasalAllergyJournal.org and information about allergies and asthma can be found at AllergyAndAsthmaRelief.org.