Food allergies are fun for no one. They are obviously not fun for you, but they are definitely not fun for anyone who witnesses your allergic reaction and begins to panic because they think you are going to die.
What am I allergic to you ask? Sulfites. Those bothersome preservatives aren’t too hard to avoid since I know what to and not to eat, but it becomes frustrating when people don’t take my allergy seriously or when food labels that contain sulfites don’t list them as an ingredient.
Sulfites are chemical compounds used as preservatives in various food and beverages to prevent browning. They can be found in alcohol, condiments, medicine, candy, and common food that people eat on a daily basis. Sulfite allergies aren’t widely known—only about 1% of the population and an estimated 5% of asthmatics have the allergy. And like any other allergy, consumption of sulfites can cause hives, vomiting, dizziness, and all the other fun stuff. Yay!
How does my story start? In church. I know, I know, not your typical setting. But there I was, sitting in my seat waiting for the service to continue after taking communion, when suddenly my face got itchy. One minute I was cool as a cucumber, the next I was a tomato-red, sweating maniac scratching at her face.
I can laugh about it now, but I almost burst into tears when my brother turned to me and the look of panic crossed his face. The itching began to get worse, my brother was getting nervous, and I fled the pew, half-running up the middle aisle and into the bathroom. To my horror, my face was weirdly dark red; I had broken out into hives.
Don’t worry, eventually everything was sorted out (although I did create quite the scandal among my fellow church-goers). My parents quickly drove me home, I took a Benadryl and drank a gallon of water, and the medicine knocked me out. I woke up to my parents telling me that they made me an appointment with an allergist and that they had a sneaking suspicion that I reacted to the sulfites in the communion wine. They were right.
The only difficulty was that I wasn’t diagnosed right away. In fact, one allergist believed that the allergy was all in my head until I drank grape juice in his office and had an allergic reaction right in front of his eyes. The fact that he thought I was lying made me ask the question: if there was more research on sulfite allergies, would he have been so accusatory?
Currently, an aura of mystery surrounds sulfites since doctors still don’t understand why some people have reactions to them while others do not. Normal skin and blood tests don’t provide accurate results, so the only way to test for sulfites is through an oral challenge (hence my grape juice experience).
After being properly diagnosed a few allergists later, I had to cut anything with sulfites out of my life. Everything from trail mix to dried fruit to canned goods were now off limits (RIP those cute red cherries that are put on top of ice cream sundaes). The process actually wasn’t too painful since I try to avoid most processed food and I’m not a huge alcohol fan; the problems began when I reacted to something that didn’t have a warning label and when others dismissed my allergy altogether.
Sulfites have alternative names that can be hidden on food labels or they might not be listed in general, depending on how the amount of sulfites detectable. So trying a new brand of granola or boxed cake mix is usually trial-and-error (I learned the hard way that all pound cakes are toxic). Though food labels can be a struggle, there is no comparison to the blood-boiling rage I feel when someone fails to realize what will happen if I have a reaction.
If you have never heard of sulfites, I would be glad to explain what they are to you. But when someone knowledgeable of them shrugs it off and says “you will be fine,” it takes all of my willpower not to use a sassy comeback because no, good sir, I will not be fine. I’m quite surprised by the group of people I have met that don’t take me seriously because sulfite allergies aren’t as common.
I don’t want to sound as if I am whining or complaining. I know I have to be careful and aware of what I eat, like everyone with a food allergy. I just reached my tipping point. I have the urge to yell from the top of the Empire State Building that there are all different types of allergies in the world and that we should be more aware of them. Too many guys have laughed or gotten annoyed when I tell them why I turned down a drink, and there is too much unknown about the science and testing behind sulfites. I want this issue to change.
So for those out there that also ride the sulfite struggle bus, I raise my glass ~of water~ to you.