Causes of Processed Food Troubles

I don’t usually talk about my diet issues, but in the rare cases it comes up, frequently people tell me they cannot figure out what exactly is causing their issues. They don’t think they have any issue with any one food, but they do feel a lot better when they eat out less, or eat less processed foods. Setting aside the fact that they may never have done an experiment on themselves controlled well enough to actually pin point their problem, I wondered what kind of things might be the culprit if we took this statement “feeling better with less eating out and less processed foods” at face value.

Histamine and/or other biogenic amines, mold, additives, even dust, dust mites, or other insects come to mind.

In practice it may be very difficult to narrow down the culprit much further. But then that may not make that much of a difference as there is a lot of overlap in the foods that potentially contain the substances listed above.

Alcoholic Beverages and Food Sensitivities

Alcoholic beverages are currently exempt from mandatory labeling of major allergens.


Typically contains barley, yeast, and hops. It is fermented but not really separated in any way except sedimentation.

Wine and various fining agents

Potentially allergenic fining agents include: casein (milk), egg white, chitosan (crustaceans), isinglass (fish). According to this paper (Vassilopoulou et al. Clinical and Translational Allergy 2011, 1:10), trace amounts of fining agents were not detectable in the finished wine but did cause positive skin prick test results in allergic individuals and may cause mild reactions.

Safe options?

Vegan wine, since almost all organic fining agents are derived from animals. ( is a searchable database for vegan booze.)

Distilled spirits such as vodka, brandy (wine), tequila (agave).


Aside from allergies, there are many pathways that alcohol can cause problems. You might have an issue with alcohol itself, or its amines or other chemical content.

As for us, we avoid alcohol. For me it causes headaches and a low mood that I just don’t want to deal with anymore and my partner flushes (common genes in Asians) and also has bruxism and GI issues when he has a drink.

Deciphering Labels for Mold Allergies

Obviously ingredient labels will not expressly tell you “mold”. With the exception of things like yeast, aspergillus oryzae or other such formal starter cultures that are intentionally used to produce certain foods.

The main things I look out for are anything fermented (sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented bean pastes, kombucha, chocolate) including vinegar. Speaking of vinegar, most commercial vinegar is fine in small amounts as they are pasteurized. Heat removes most of the problems for me. I avoid raw or unpasteurized vinegars found usually in the fancier, healthy, small batch brands. I avoid things like sauerkraut and fermented bean paste even when cooked, as these have large amounts of mold and seem to cause mild issues.

Things would be much more complicated if one does not tolerated small amounts of mold even when cooked. This would mean any tomato products, mushrooms, even berry preserves would be out, among others. Luckily I am okay with these.

Also, corn and peanut are notorious for mold contamination. The more processed they are, the more we cannot see their whole form, the more likely to be problematic. As for us, we didn’t detect any problem with fresh corn, even frozen or canned corn, where we can see the whole kernels. But there were some incidents that made us suspicious of corn flour or cornmeal products such as cereals or chips. 

Reading Labels and Possible Exceptions

Since most of my problem foods are among the 8 most common allergens, many times a quick scan for the major allergens is enough to reject a food product. For example, any mention of milk, tree nuts, or shrimp, and it’s out. But if it mentions wheat (gluten) or soy, I look further.

If the soy is in the form of soy lecithin or soybean oil, I can have it. Protein content in lecithin and commercial oils are so low that most people with allergies will tolerate these.

If the only source of wheat and soy is soy sauce, I can usually have it. Gluten content in commercial soy sauce is under 20 ppm for most brands and I can tolerate small amounts.

Of course this all depends on one’s sensitivity level, but knowing these exceptions can open up quite a few more options.

Oils from Allergenic Foods

If you have food allergies, should you worry about cooking oils (and fats) in your food?

It depends.

In general, commercial peanut oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, palm oil are unlikely to cause reactions as they are highly refined and their protein content is nonexistent. But there can always be exceptions. It all depends on your sensitivity level. If you are extremely sensitive to even minute amounts or if your reactions are severe it would be safe to err on the side of caution.

Oils labeled cold pressed, expeller pressed, or unrefined, are more problematic from an allergy viewpoint as they will contain small amounts of protein. These are more likely to be found in “natural”, “organic”, and higher-end foods as they are generally considered healthier due to less processing and thus less loss of nutrition.

Coconut, sesame, perilla oils are generally not refined.

And for milk allergies, ghee and clarified butter’s milk protein content is much lower than butter. Again depending on sensitivity level you may tolerate none, one, or possibly even both.

How Food Processing Changes Its Allergenicity

Allergenic protein structures change when processed. Some are more heat labile than others. It all depends on the protein structure.

Higher temperatures for longer times can decrease the allergenicity of the proteins, allowing it to be tolerated by some. Generally the greater the decrease in allergenicity as you heat, cook, and finally bake.

Fermenting is another way protein structures can change enough to make a difference in allergenicity, as they are partially digested into shorter chains (peptides).

Example: gluten content in regular commercial soy sauce. Many test under 20 ppm, low enough to be tolerated depending on one’s sensitivity.