Allergic to food? Salicylates

Unexplained sinus problems, hives, eczema, stomach pains, mouth ulcers, swelling in face hands or feet, headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, tests, scans, medication, more tests, more scans, more medication and no relief. Could you have a salicylate sensitivity?  

Salicylates (Sal-iss-a-lates) are present in varying levels in most of the foods we eat, they’re not additives and they are a necessary part of that foods life. Salicylates are hormones found in plants and have a chemical structure similar to aspirin. They act as a ‘protector’ to foods to ward off pathogens. Salicylates are mostly found under the skins of food. Salicylates have the potential to build up in the body faster than it can break them down and may cause problems for those susceptible to sensitivity. 

A hypothetical scenario could play out like this: One day you’re enjoying a punnet of strawberries (high in salicylates) but as the days go by you may end up with a persistent headache which you treat with aspirin and still continuing to eat strawberries, and perhaps a few tomoatoes...you keep treating your headache with aspirin and a month later you end up with what looks like ‘an allergy to something’ chronic sinus and perhaps a rash.  

Salicylates are also found in other products. They’re commonly found in acne medication as salicylic acid, they can also produce a ‘minty’ flavour and are used in mints and mint flavoured products and may be referred to as oil of wintergreen. Salicylates are in virtually everything; deodorants, sports rubs, air fresheners, washing powder...the list goes on. Methyl Salicylate toxicity was found in a cross country runner in 2007 who was suspected to have overused a particular topical muscle relief product.  

Where to from here? 

The first step is to assess whether you strongly believe salicylates are the cause of your symptoms.

  1. Keep a diary which details every food eaten, medication taken and product used and list any symptoms, severity of symptom and time of day the symptoms occur.
  2. Be attentive to your symptoms, sinus in pollen season may just be a pollen sensitivity and it will be hard to assess salicylate sensitivity during this time.  
  3. Start making a list of foods which you strongly believe are making you sick and then avoid eating them. You have to avoid them to help work out other foods which may be adding to the problem.
  4. Assess the level of additives in your diet. Additives (such as preservatives, colourings, flavour enhancers, nitrates, amines, artificial sweeteners etc) can also produce headaches, sinus and other problems.   

Before claiming a salicylate sensitivity try eliminating all processed foods for at least a week to see if your symptoms clear. This type of diet would include fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt and grains (oats, barley, millet, wheat, rice, corn), tea and coffee with no sugar or artificial sweeteners. Bread contains preservatives and should be left out when attempting a natural diet.  And please note, if you also have a gluten sensitivity, just leave all grains out for the sake of simplicity.

If you have done all these things and a natural unprocessed diet is still causing symptoms then it’s time to talk to your Nutritionist about a specific salicylate elimination diet. There are no tests for salicylate sensitivity per se.  I personally ensure that my clients are provided with yummy meal ideas they can make from their limited foods list and teach them how to effectively identify problem foods and we work out what level of those foods could be included.

Some foods which are low in salicylates still cause a reaction in people, this is a list of some of the common foods which can produce a sensitivity.   Aspirin and products containing aspirin or salicylic acid | Almonds | Apples | Apricots Berries (all) Cherries | Chili | Cider & cider vinegar (apples) | Cloves | Coffee | Cucumbers & pickles | Currants Dried Fruits Grapes & raisins | Nectarines | Oranges Paprika | Peaches | Peppers (bell & chili) | Plums |prunes Tangerines | Tea | Tomatoes Wine & wine vinegar (grapes) | Oil of wintergreen (methyl salicylate) Rose hips or acerola (often found in vitamins) | Food colorings, preservatives, etc.  

The complete list of foods and products is large and is simply a starting point as some people will find that foods low in salicylates will still produce a reaction if the body still has high levels of salicylates still circulating.