With our ongoing consumer advocacy series, we at the Human Impacts Institute want to help put the power back into consumers’ hands. We want to equip consumers with the knowledge of what kinds of chemicals (good and bad) are actually in their food, beauty products, and household supplies—and how they affect us—so they can make their own informed decisions on what to buy for themselves and their families. Little did we know, however, that one of our summer interns, Ilana Newman, is a regular Sherlock Holmes when it comes to ingredients in foods and consumer products.
Becaue Ilana is allergic to artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives—this series, therefore, holds a special significance for her. We sat down with her for an interview, in which she describes how her allergy was discovered, her experiences living with her allergy, and useful resources for anyone who wants to discover more about what’s in their food. For more resources, check out our ‘tipsheets’ and presentations.
1. Firstly - thanks for doing this interview! Can you start by explaining what constitutes an allergen for you?
Sure. I am allergic to artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. To be more specific, I am allergic to petroleum based dyes (e.g. Blue #1, Yellow #5; most of which are already banned in the EU), artificial added flavors, sorbates, benzoates, propionates, BHA, BHT, and TBHQ.
These substances can show up anywhere: from marshmallows, to bread, to frying oil. Other individuals who have my allergies might have a larger or smaller list, but those are the substances that I personally have reacted to in the past.
2. How did you figure out you were allergic to artificial colors, flavors and preservatives?
When I was in third grade, I was having trouble in school. I wasn’t able to concentrate on my work, had trouble paying attention to the teacher, and had a whole host of other issues. My teacher recommended that I get tested for a behavioral disorder. I had a cousin with autism who at that point had just switched over to an all natural diet, and he had responded really well. My parents decided they might as well try it out with me.
Within three weeks I was a different person. I was engaged in the classroom, getting better grades, and most of my eczema disappeared as well. But I still had to get tested, so my parents brought me to a psychologist. Before I changed my diet, my teacher had filled out a Connors test, (an observation-based evaluation form used to help diagnose behavioral disorders like ADHD). When the psychologist compared the pre-diet Connors test, then evaluated me in person post-diet, he told my parents that the two evaluations did not match up whatsoever. He asked my teacher to fill out a post-diet Connors test, and when he compared the two, he said it was like the tests were from two completely different people.
3. Does it also apply to beauty/cleaning products?
I try to avoid beauty and household products containing my allergens whenever possible. Of course, sometimes they just can’t be avoided—I’m not going to bring along my own soap whenever I go to wash my hands. Because my allergy is still fairly untested, I’m still not very certain of its specifics, like the amount and exposure time necessary to cause a reaction. A lipstick with red food coloring, for example, will probably cause a reaction, because I’ll be using a large amount of it, it will be on my lips for a long time, and I will probably end up ingesting it. But it’s iffier with items like hand soap or shampoo, because they’re washed off quickly and aren’t absorbed into the skin as much. So for me, it’s better safe than sorry, to the extent that it’s practical.
4. How long does it take you to feel an effect from an allergen?
It really depends on the allergen. From experience, I’ve found that I’ll react to artificial colors instantly, whereas it’ll take a few hours to develop a reaction to preservatives.
5. Describe your first memories of being allergic - how did you feel? How old were you?
I distinctly remember the first day of my new diet. We gave away all our food with preservatives and artificial flavorings/colorings and took a big family trip to the grocery store to replace everything in our house. I was 8 at the time - and had no idea what was going on. I was really confused over why we were going to a new supermarket and weren't getting my favorite mac-n-cheese. That night, I had my first organic dinner. I didn’t like change, and there was just so much unexplained change going on that night. I remember when my mom told me that I couldn’t have ‘normal’ mac-n-cheese anymore: I actually started crying.
So that was my first night on the new diet. But of course, like any other child with allergies, I remember the birthday parties, the kids bringing cupcakes to class.
And it was especially hard for me, because the switch to the new diet was so rapid—one day I could have the pink frosted cupcakes and the next day I couldn’t. My classmates were confused too. What kind of a kid would turn down cupcakes, you know? So they’d be asking me “why aren’t you having the cupcakes?” and I didn’t really have a good answer because I wasn’t yet able to understand my allergy. So that really created kind of an outsider status that I found difficult to address until I was older and able to explain it to others.
6. Did you/your family experience medical or peer pushback when deciding to avoid certain products? Has that changed at all over time?
When we changed my diet, there was some pushback from doctors, but the pushback was primarily from my mom’s peers. My mom is a doctor, so she has a lot of doctor friends. As I mentioned earlier, we came across this new diet because of my cousin, and at the time, this diet was really not mainstream, only in the alternative medical literature. Then a study came out in the Lancet, one of the most respected scientific journals in the world. The doctors designed a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled study, which is the gold standard of medicine. The study found that artificial colors and preservatives cause increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children. The benefits of an all-natural diet are now accepted by many mainstream physicians.
Regarding my personal doctors—my physician was very accepting of the diet. She basically told us: “I don’t know anything about it, but I’ve heard of similar results from other parents so if you think it’s working, go ahead.” When my parents first told the psychologist who was testing me for a behavioral disorder, he rolled his eyes, but after he tested me, he understood. Some of my mom’s friends would say “why don’t you let her eat whatever she wants and just put her on Ritalin?” But other than those people, most were really great—curious, of course, but really respectful.
When my family first made the switch, eating all-natural/organic was not as prevalent as it is now: I have early memories of sitting in a restaurant surrounded by waiters and chefs as my parents went through item after item on the menu to find something for me to eat. But now, it’s completely different, and I think that change is due to two things:
(1) The food allergy safety movement has made incredible strides over the past decade or so. Gluten-free options are so much more ubiquitous than they were in the past, and nearly every state has passed legislation regarding stocking epi-pens in schools. Obviously, that’s fantastic for those who require such changes, but it’s also great for me. People take allergies in general so much more seriously than they did in the past, and in general, there’s just so much more awareness of the need for allergy safety. Even though my allergy is very different from the standard "big-eight" allergies, that are more well known, and my reaction is not at all standard, I’ve definitely been able to benefit from their hard work;
(2) As I mentioned earlier, eating a preservative-free and organic diet is now more common, and is no longer seen as a “hippy-dippy thing,” but as a legitimate investment in one’s health. And there's so much more of it too. Even megastores like Costco have been projected to sell billions of dollars in organic foods. Additionally, so many studies have come out touting the benefits of an all natural/organic diet. The public’s perception of all-natural/organic foods has really changed so much, and that’s been fantastic for me.
7. Do you know of anyone else that has similar allergies/reactions?
I’ve only met one other individual who shared my allergies. When we found out we were both so excited! Even though we had different reactions, it was really exciting to find someone who understood and related to what I was going through, because my allergies really are not like other allergies. I’ve friends with allergies within the big eight, and we talk about our experiences a lot, but it’s hard for us to truly identify with each other, due to the unusual nature of my allergies.
8. What resources do you use to know what to eat/what not to eat? And what would you say to people who suspect they may have similar allergies?
There are more and more resources out there to help. When I started out, I used this tipsheet:
and it was really helpful when I was younger and found it difficult to remember the complex names of all the preservatives. The Feingold Organization is also a very good resource.
Now, two resources that I’ve found to be super helpful are Food Scores and SkinDeep. They’re both apps from the Environmental Working Group. They’re barcode scanning apps, but Food Scores focuses on food and SkinDeep focuses on makeup. I just scan, say a jar of peanut butter or a lipstick, and the apps will instantly tell me everything about the product and give it a score. They’ve made my life so much easier, and I’d definitely recommend them to anyone who wants to learn more about what’s in their food.
As to what I’d say to people thinking they have similar allergies: don’t be afraid to give it a go! Stop using the products you think may be causing it, and try going all natural. There’s nothing to lose, and you can gain so much. And who knows: maybe you’ll also start loving whole wheat mac ‘n cheese!