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Are you allergic to your chicken tikka?

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Britain is a nation of takeaway lovers, and chicken tikka masala is now apparently more popular than roast beef. Until now spice allergies have been comparatively rare – accounting for just  two per cent of food allergies. But now US experts are predicting they could rise as more of us become exposed to spices – in foods, household products and fragrances.

Yorkshire nurse Christine  Caudwell experienced spice allergy at first hand when –  out of the blue – she developed itching and hives after eating her favourite takeaway chicken tikka dopiaza. This was a dish she’d eaten at least once a week for 20 years or more and yet, suddenly in her forties it became a problem . Her allergic reactions became progressively worse until she eventually suffered a life threatening anaphylactic reaction and needed a shot of adrenaline. She was later later diagnosed with allergies to 26 different spices including chilli, turmeric and paprika.You can read more about Christine’s story in my article for the Daily Mail Good Health section http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2242522/Did-eating-chicken-tikka-deadly-allergy.html

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Avoiding spices

Christine says she now has to follow a restricted diet because spices are added to so many processed foods including sausages, cheesy puffs and even Easter eggs – and often the label does not specify which spices are ingredients.

But if Christine finds it a nightmare to avoid spices though it’s even more difficult for mother of four Nasiba Mansor, a care worker, 42, who is Asian and lives with her husband Ayub, 45, also a care worker in Leeds. Her son Musa, 11, has been having allergic reactions to spices since the age of six and has to avoid the spices she uses daily in family meals.

‘Musa will sometimes beg me for a samosa but if eats one his mouth will instantly start tingling and he will come out  in red hot welts all over this body.  Sometimes his blood pressure drops too. He’s ended up in hospital many times and has to carry an EpiPen because of the risks he faces.

‘He has to eat plain food with no spices – I can’t use anything with spices or artificial flavourings in his meals – and understandably he feels left out. He wants to be like the rest of the family – but if we go to an extended family get together he has to eat his own packed lunch. I make him non spicy versions of Indian dishes – chicken flavoured with lemon juice and coriander rather spices, cheese, roti bread, plain rice and samosas without the spices.

It took Nasiba a year to work out what was triggering Musa’s severe allergic reactions – he had an EpiPen of adrenaline prescribed – but doctors didn’t know what food was responsible for the reactions.

‘Musa’s lips started to swell and tingle one day after we’d just finished a family meal. Then he came out in small red weals which were red hot to the touch.

‘The food did contain spices but nothing we hadn’t eaten before. I couldn’t work out what was wrong – we have no family history of allergies in our family and had no experience of anything like it.

Nasiba took Musa to hospital and he was given anti-histamines and his symptoms died down – but she still worried because she didn’t know what had provoked the reaction.

‘I carried on giving Musa spicy food – it just didn’t occur to me that spices could be causing the reactions. Spice allergy is unheard of in the Asian community so it didn’t enter my head.’

Although skin prick tests didn’t prove positive for an Ig E reaction – Musa’s specialist believes anything that causes his body to heat up triggers his reactions – including spices. He also reacts if he gets hot from exercising or has too many bedclothes on at night.

‘We think its mainly garam masala spice and chilli which trigger his reactions – but as garam masala is a blend of six spices  and each blend is slightly different it’s  almost impossible to isolate which one is responsible.

‘Better food labelling would definitely help me identify which foods are safe for my son to eat. He’s eleven now and wants to be independent and eat out with friends – it is getting so difficult for him.’

Lindsey McManus, deputy chief executive of the charity Allergy UK, says specific spices don’t have to be listed on ingredient lists on food products in the UK.

‘Spices are also used in a wide range of  non food products – for instance cinnmaldehyde the chemical which gives cinnamon its flavour is used in some toothpastes and can cause skin rashes – they  are increasingly very difficult to avoid.

‘As a charity we are constantly campaigning for clearer and more detailed food labelling.’

Why are more of us becoming allergic as adults?

Allergy consultant Dr Pierre Dugue, from the London Bridge Hospital, says adults developing allergies  was unheard of when he left medical school in the 1970s and yet now it is becoming increasingly common. Why? The truth is nobody really knows, although Dr Dugue says it’s probably something to do with the modern Western lifestyle. One theory is that there’s a window in the development of an infant’s immune system when exposure to good old fashioned dirt can help protect against allergies in later life. He says although spice allergy is rare at the moment it is likely that is  under diagnosed because not many people are aware that spices can trigger allergies, and it can be hard to pinpoint which spice exactly is triggering the response.

Christine Caudwell told me she was dying for a curry – but knows that nothing is worth putting her life at risk.  But  thanks to the vagaries of our food labelling regulations – avoiding spices just isn’t that easy.

Now sag aloo and lamb pasanda are as commonplace  as fish and chips and hot dogs in the UK,  it’s something that food manufacturers  might have to  consider a lot more when they  review how specific  ingredients are listed on packaging.

For more information on allergies call Allergy Uk on 01322 619 898 or visit allergyuk.org

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