Thursday, September 6, 2012

Of Tea and Toothpaste: Allergies to Sweeteners and Herbs

To continue my mini-series of how different allergies can affect everyday life, last week I covered some basic contact allergies. I also asked if anybody could think of an allergy I'd mentioned before that would affect my ability to use toothpaste and drink tea.

Nobody did, but no biggie. My own mother loses track of my allergies. (Yeah, that can get fun when she hands me food.)

I was thinking of stevia. Gives me headaches.

Stevia is both a sweetener and an herb, but reactions to sweeteners are actually fairly common, particularly to artificial ones. There's a reason anything with aspartame has a warning on it, and it's not that one of the byproducts if formaldehyde. There's a disorder wherein people can't break down phenylalanine. It can cause neural issues like seizures and mental retardation.

The odd-ish thing about that? All chemical sweeteners have molecular structures that are odd to the body and don't necessarily digest (and there are some studies showing correlation between artificial sweeteners and obesity + cancers, which suggests causation). So poor aspartame is singled out for the terrible side effects it has on that minority of the population, while the other artificial sweeteners are ignored.

(I've read before—but I don't know how verified it is—that when you taste sweet, your body tells your brain, "Prepare to store calories," so if you don't get them, your body still wants them and it may even make stuff to store. That might just be a theory for why some studies have shown correlation between obesity and artificial sweeteners.)

Granted, I still avoid eating aspartame, but that's because I don't want formaldehyde in my body. Sugar, honey, agave—I'll eat those over the others, any day. And I'm working on getting corn syrup (with its many name variants) out of my diet, because my insulin's wonky enough and I don't need that adding to it. ("Corn syrup" is a misnomer, and though it doesn't affect your blood sugar right away, it affects spikes your blood sugar higher than table sugar after your body's done digesting what you ate. Thus why some folks call soda pop "Diabetes in a can.")

Okay, to get back on topic of allergies, what does all this about sweetener have to do with allergies? ^_^

Sweeteners are in everything. Baked beans, cheese, chicken nuggets, canned asparagus—if you eat it, the major brands probably have sweeteners added. Because sugar's nicely addicting like that, encouraging you to come back for more—and it can act as a preservative, too.

Xylitol's in most gum and toothpaste. Stevia's often in tea blends. Food usually has some form of sugar or corn syrup added—unless it's natural, in which case the added sweetener is more likely to be stevia or brown rice syrup. (And remember my rice intolerance? Makes it hard for me to find "all-natural" pre-made foods I can eat.)

So anybody allergic to a sweetener—and I've known people allergic to Splenda and others—has to be careful with what they consume, reading labels for particular families of foods…

And then there are the exceptions, which can get more common as different sweeteners get chic and other ones lose popularity. If you're allergic to a sweetener and you don't read every label, you'll probably end up blindsided sometime and wondering why on earth you have a headache. (Oh, toothpaste, I hate you.)

Now, imagine you were allergic to peppermint. Or cinnamon. (I once knew someone allergic to cinnamon and nutmeg.) Or to the most popular flavor where you live.

If you eat it, somebody's allergic.

Technically, you could even be intolerant to a food and not realize it. I'm a chatterbox, and I've discovered that a fair number of people have symptoms of a food intolerance and don't know that's what it is. Some people just think "My stomach hurts all the time" or "Sometimes" or "Sometimes my digestion's really screwed up".

For girls in particular, those things can happen due to hormones, but they can also be due to food sensitivities—and you can be sensitive to a food in one form and not in another. My brother can't have cooked cabbage, but he can eat raw cabbage just fine, though it's harder to digest.

My own mother, no stranger to allergies and intolerances and such, had symptoms of being allergic to Lortab and didn't realize it until I pointed out, "Er… Mom? What you're describing as your reaction to Lortab is how my Tylenol allergy started." (Tylenol is in Lortab.)

So don't assume you have no allergies or intolerances or sensitivities. You won't be doing yourself any favors—though if you have as limited a diet as I've heard the average person does, you may not ever encounter anything you react to.

Do you ever read the labels in what you eat? What's your sweetener of choice?


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