Having a nickel allergy is not uncommon nowadays, which is why we see so many items labelled “nickel free.” Not so well-known is the fact that you can also have an adverse reaction to nickel in food in form of a non-allergic food hypersensitivity, also known less precisely as food intolerance.
Hypersensitivity to nickel in food is not a food allergy like, for example, a nut allergy. A food allergy is caused when the body misidentifies a certain food item as harmful and launches a fast-acting immune mechanism in the body, usually by releasing high amounts of antibodies. The reaction is more or less immediate and can, in extreme cases, lead to an anaphylactic shock. Nickel in food is not life-threatening, but it poses some severe restrictions on your diet. The symptoms often take a while until they manifest themselves, so that identifying a particular food item as the cause for the reaction can be quite difficult. Although the body requires nickel, just as it needs iron and zinc, it only requires minute amounts. If you are intolerant to nickel in food, it means that the body is unable to deal with any excess in your body. You are passing a threshold of tolerance and suddenly what is considered healthy becomes the cause of eczema.
For general information on food allergies and intolerances, check this site: http://www.foodallergens.info/Facts/Symptoms.html
What happens when you are hypersensitive to nickel in food?
While nickel allergy often produces wet pustules, nickel intolerance causes a delayed form of eczema with dry blistering, which is, curiously enough, often limited to the hands. For me, the first signs are deep-red patches in the palms of the hand and along the sides of the fingers. The inflammation develops right underneath the skin, causing it to harden and thereby to tighten. Eventually, the skin will blister and break. Underneath, there is new healthy skin, but during the transition from old to new skin, the skin tends to be rough and scaly. Unfortunately, sometimes a new outbreak starts while the skin still healing from the last one.
Ramona’s tip: Use petroleum jelly and use it frequently! I have tried many skin creams, but none has been as effective in smoothing the skin during an outbreak.
Hypersensitive to nickel in food? What to avoid
A nickel-free diet is virtually impossible because far too many food items contain nickel. If you are hypersensitive, you will probably have to deal with outbreaks of eczema for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, this kind of hypersensitivity is particularly bad for vegetarians and vegans as food plants absorb nickel through their roots and store it somewhere, often right underneath the skin or shell of their fruit. Animals excrete any nickel they consumed. Their innards are typically heavy on nickel, but otherwise, they tend to be find, with some exceptions.
I found that cutting out the following common food items made a real difference:
Nuts, especially pecan and cashew
Anything with undefined flavors (aroma)
This includes all processed foods containing any of the above, almost all cereal bars and almost all pesto.
Ramona’s tip: Get used to reading labels. Always. Even for things you wouldn’t suspect.
Nickel in food: The flavor has it
Flavoring is a really tricky issue if you are hypersensitive to nickel, especially since they are so hard to avoid. If a product contains “flavor”, it’s best to assume it’s artificial, i.e., synthetically produced. Although I am not sure why these artificial flavors cause an allergic reaction, maybe they are based on sources that are heavy with nickel. In any case, I never fail to get one. I recommend avoiding anything that lists “aroma” or “flavoring” without telling you of what kind it is.
Which brings me to my next point: “Natural flavor” is derived from natural sources, but “natural” covers a wide spectrum. For example, vanillin can be derived from lignin, which you find in tree bark. Real vanilla from the vanilla orchid is quite expensive, so most products contain human-made vanillin from other “natural” sources. All these other sources seem to be really problematic if you are hypersensitive to nickel. I know that if I eat anything containing vanillin, I will see the first red patches on my palms in a matter of days. Real or bourbon vanilla is generally find.
Only if a flavor names its source, it also has to contain that source. For example, “natural apple flavor” has to contain some apple, even if it has been chemically enhanced. Unfortunately, many labels list “natural so-and-so flavor and other natural flavors.” For me, this is a no-no, mainly because “other natural flavors” often means vanillin. A welcome exception is anything with citrus flavor, which seems relatively safe.
What I find really frustrating is that you find vanillin in all sorts of other products, such as lip balm, lemongrass tea, multivitamins, even peppermint candy. However, the industries seem to catch up, so you find more and more food products containing real vanilla or bourbon vanilla – and nothing else.
I never order any kind of dessert or cake in a restaurant unless I have a list of all ingredients. Not only because few people will know there difference between real vanilla and natural flavor, but also because there is another trap: soy-lecithin.
Soy-lecithin is just as ubiquitous as vanillin, and almost as bad. The good news is that it is usually listed on the label in bold print. A popular ingredient in chocolate and all sorts of candy and ice cream, it is also found in countless other products, such a baked goods. Luckily, I have no problems with sunflower-lecithin, as long as I don’t overdo it.
What about chocoholics?
With cocoa and vanillin out of the picture, there is not a lot of chocolate left. If you like white chocolate, there is hope: There are certain brands that have no soy-lecithin and contain only real vanilla – and they are really tasty too.