Allergies and the connection with preservatives in our seafood

Allergies and the connection with preservatives in our seafood

Sulphites and preservatives in meats and fish

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) are aware that sulphites are of particular concern to those suffering from asthma and this concern is already addressed by the mandatory labelling of all foods with sulphite concentrations of 10 mg/kg or more. Despite the mandatory expectation for the food industry to label all foods with sulphite concentrations of 10 mg/kg or more, the practice is poorly monitored.


Sulphites are added as a preservative in crustacean sea food which is essentially shell fish. This includes crabs, lobsters, shrimp barnacles and bugs etc. Think again if you thought you were buying fresh seafood from the markets, not realising that they have been contaminated by preservatives. Sulphites destroy Thiamine (Vitamin B1) and they are also thought to destroy folic acid, both of which GAPS patients are already deficient in. The USA food regulators have prohibited the use of sulphites in the use of meats and some other fast food practices, however Australia and some other English and Spanish speaking countries continue to allow them. The maximum level of sulphites permitted in uncooked crustacean sea food is 100mg/kg and cooked crustaceans at a level of 30 mg/kg. Sulphites are associated with food intolerance's, headaches, IBS, behavioural problems, skin rashes and many cases of asthma. Australian research has found that 65% of asthmatics react to sulphites.

The Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Code is intended to protect public health and safety, give consumers better information and minimise deceptive practices. Penalties also apply under ‘The Food Act, 2006’ for not complying with the code. The Labeling and Compositional Standards for the Seafood Industry advise that fish and fish products sold unpackaged at retail are exempt from labeling requirements. This means that we (as consumers) cannot see what preserving agents have been used via labeling, however what the public are not generally aware of is that the standard requires the retailer to provide the purchaser with either verbal or written information upon request regarding potential allergens which include added sulphites. Wholesalers must also comply with requests from the retailers regarding the use of sulphite additives to provide associated documentation to enable the retailer to comply with the standards.

This is important and empowering information for the consumer because there seems to be a great deal of disparity and knowledge amongst seafood retail staff, who have no awareness of these inputs nor where they could obtain the information requested. You may upload important fact sheets for your own awarenes on these authorities and the changes to the chemical imputs in our foods at the link below.

Farmed fish is another significant concern as they are generally not native to the area and if they escape (which they do) they create disease among native fish, pollute the native species gene pool and compete for food and spawning sites. Some 50,000 salmon are farmed in each tightly confined pen in Tasmania and keeping disease from spreading is a constant battle with the use of antibiotics (which GAPS patients must definitely avoid).

A pilot study conducted by Dr. Easton with the David Suzuki Foundation found that farmed salmon and the feed they were given appeared to have a much higher level of contamination with respect to PCBs, organo-chlorine pesticides, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers than did wild salmon. In January 2004, the journal Science warned that farmed salmon contain 10 times more toxins (PCBs, dioxin, etc.) than wild salmon.

In addition to many farmed fish feeds containing soy pellets and pesticide residues, many salmon farmers use a synthetic dye to produce a strong pink flesh. As more salmon makes its way into restaurants and onto our dinner plates, more and more questions will inevitably be asked about what it takes to farm Atlantic salmon in Australia and other parts of the world. You vote against sustainability with the purchase of every farmed fish and at the same time you are placing your health at risk. The change needs to occur at the roots so ask away at your retail fish market.

The best way to buy seafood for GAPS is to catch it yourself or to ask the following questions at your seafood retailer.

  • Is the fish farmed ? (avoid all farmed fish)
  • Are any additives (like colour enhancers) or preservatives (like sulphites) added? Refer to the Government fact sheets to advise of your request rights and provide them with a copy (if necessary). Explain why you are making the enquiry and try your best to remain friendly so that you do not offend or make them feel threatened with your enquiry.  It is best to build and maintain a good friendly relationship with your fish market suppliers and you will find that they can offer fish without the added chemicals purely by speaking to the fishermen that supply to them.  You can also ask for prawns or other shellfish without sulphites thrown over them and when to buy them fresh.
  • Ask for fresh chemical free crustaceans like prawns (shrimp).

Crustacean Seafood

If prawns are not cooked within 24 hours they begin to go black in colour and this is why they add the preservatives to maintain the rich coral colours so this is a good indicator to go by.  Even when chemical free prawns are frozen before 24 hours, they will go black in colour and even though the preservatives are not needed for frozen produce, the seafood industry add sulphites to preserve the rich coral colours to make it more appealing for consumers to purchase because people believe the colour maintains freshness. Apart from the obvious, one other problem with the deceptive appearance of fresh colour, is that there is no actual way of telling how old the crustacean really is if it has been coated in preservatives. The other option is to buy fresh chemical free prawns that have been cooked (before 24 hours) and frozen. If they are cooked before the 24 hours and frozen, they will maintain the fresh colour, however you have no way of determining what water was used to boil them and whether additives were mistakenly added to them via shared cooking water or pots shared with other chemical crustaceans. When you cook them at home, you can be sure that they are prepared without any chemical cross contamination. It therefore makes good sense to buy crustaceans in the following ways:

How to Buy Crustaceans (shell fish)

1.If you don’t plan to cook your crustaceans on the same day: Special order and buy fresh caught chemical free prawns (caught within 24 hours) or other crustaceans and freeze them. They may go black in colour after freezing but if you don’t mind the colour then this should not bother you.

2.If you plan to cook them on the same day:Special order and buy fresh caught chemical free prawns (caught within 24 hours) and cook them at home for immediate consumption or freeze them for another time.These can easily be added to soups, curries and seafood dinners. If you have cooked them within 24 hours and then freeze them, they will maintain their natural coral colours.

Other Hints

  • Get in contact with a local fisherman willing to provide you with fresh chemical free seafood. Otherwise it is best to stay away from all retail crustaceans, especially for people who are sensitive to chemicals or who are asthmatic.
  • Don’t buy fish from the market if it has been sitting in the shop for more than a day.
  • Select a nice local fresh mackerel fillet or cutlet or wild salmon. It is ok if they are frozen.
  • Avoid fish caught overseas because you cannot guarantee whether they have preservatives.
  • Avoid farmed fish and shoreline fish around industrial areas.
  • Select small fish like mackerel, salmon, herring, anchovies or sardines.
  • Prawns, bugs, sea scallops and calamari provide further variety.
  • Aim to consume fish at least twice a week. You can have fish fillets, soups, fermented dishes, casseroles and fish cakes etc.
  • If your child is having seafood for the first time, it is suggested to do the food sensitivity test first and then only give them a small portion to begin with (especially for shell fish) and monitor them for 20 minutes to test for any reactions.

Symptoms of fish or shellfish allergies vary and range from mild reactions to a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). The most common symptom is raised red bumps of skin (hives). Other symptoms include wheezing and trouble breathing, cramps, diarrhoea, nausea or vomiting.

Whilst seafood allergy figures vary from country to country, approximately 1% of the Australian population is estimated to suffer from seafood allergy. It is more common in teenage and adult life than very early childhood. About 20% will grow out of their allergy with time.