Allergic to Spices?

Is it possible to be allergic to spices? I think I have an allergy to cinnamon, but I’ve been told there’s no such thing. I sneeze a lot whenever I come into contact with cinnamon.

– January 11, 2013

Yes, it is possible to be allergic to spices, but until recently, these allergies have been regarded as rare. However, according to a presentation at the 2012 annual scientific meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) two to three percent of individuals worldwide have an allergic reaction to spices. These allergies may represent two percent of all food allergies but are under diagnosed because of the lack of reliable tests for them. Reactions can range from sneezing to life-threatening anaphylaxis, and can be triggered by spices used in cosmetics, toothpastes and other dental products, as well as those used in food.

Unfortunately, spices are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and as a result are not always listed on food labels. This can make it very hard to identify the specific allergen and to determine what foods and other products to avoid. Because of the increasing use of spices in foods and cosmetics, it is likely that more and more individuals in the United States will come into contact with these substances and develop allergies to them, according to Sami Bahna, M.D., past president of the ACAAI, who gave the presentation on spice allergies at the annual meeting. He noted that patients with this problem often have to take extreme measures to avoid the allergen, which can mean strictly avoiding all foods that may contain it. This can lead to “low quality of life and sometimes malnutrition,” Dr. Bahna said.

Common spice allergies are to cinnamon and garlic, as well as to black pepper and vanilla. To make things more difficult, spice blends often contain many different spices.

Dr. Bahna explained that cooking (including boiling, roasting and frying) foods that contain spices may reduce the allergens that trigger symptoms, but in some cases, cooking can enhance their potential to set off reactions. He said that a spice allergy should be suspected when an individual has multiple reactions to unrelated foods or when reactions occur to commercially prepared foods but not to foods cooked at home. Individuals who are allergic to spices can develop symptoms as a result of eating, touching or inhaling them.

If you think that you have an allergy to cinnamon or to any other spice (or combination of spices), try to keep a record of what foods set off your symptoms. Dr. Bahna recommends consulting a board certified allergist who can help you implement a plan to cope with your problem.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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