The story of a boy and citric acid troubles

Published 9:35 am Friday, March 29, 2013

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

Once upon a time a child started not feeling so great, a touch of nausea, almost every time the child was out having fun with friends. Then the child’s tongue started peeling, and bumps that resembled cold sores appeared.

At first it seemed to be caused by different kinds of candy — Sour Gummies, Warheads — that nobody actually needs to eat, so they were easy to avoid. But after awhile, orange juice started causing the peeling, and the nausea lasted longer and longer. One by one the child’s family eliminated foods that appeared on their table until they were able to zero in on the true culprit: citric acid.

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Those weeks of uncertainty were difficult, trying to work out what was wrong with the child and what was causing the problems. No surprise at that. Ongoing suffering of children that cannot be easily eased, even when it is relatively minor, is always hard for parents when it can only be watched.

The family arranged for an appointment with a specialist at a famous allergy clinic, looking for answers and ways to deal with the problem. The specialist asked questions and ordered tests, but he and his team were ultimately unable to do anything. What the child was experiencing was a “sensitivity” and not a traditional food allergy.

Allergies and sensitivities were not outside the experience of the family in question, or that of many other families. Lots of people in their world suffered from problems caused by the foods that they ate. The schools that children went to often had to post signs about different ingredients that could not be brought into the building; cards in the cafeteria labeled which of the lines had foods safe for certain students to eat.

Which made for the following surprise when shopping for food that the child with the citric acid sensitivity could eat: There wasn’t very much. Finding food without citric acid as an ingredient was extremely difficult. It’s a preservative, you see, and is added to hundreds of different items.

The hardest to accept was the lack of any canned tomato products; all of them — from spaghetti sauce to tomato paste — contained citric acid. Chili, spaghetti, lasagna and tomato soup all came off the menu. Even the most boring soups the family had avoided in the past because of the blandness included it.

Eventually there were almost no items at home that were easy to heat up and eat for all those rushed meals when everybody arrived home and then left again almost immediately for school events or meetings. Like so many other families, they had become dependent on prepared and packaged foods, whose nutritional content came with natural and unnatural preservatives.

In order to find easy-to-fix food, the family started stopping at stores that were new to them. These were often upmarket grocery stores, where they would wander through the gourmet and organic aisles and read labels, looking for soups and sauces that could be heated and served or tomato products of any kind without citric acid.

Their efforts finally found some success. The child experienced far fewer issues. And at one particular chain of grocery stores they hit the jackpot. Not only were there prepared soups, packaged in boxes, that the child could eat, there were multiple types from which to choose. The store’s own house brand of organic spaghetti sauces did not use citric acid as a preservative. And they offered one type of canned tomatoes — with peppers — that used acetic acid (vinegar based) as a preservative, meaning that chili, a family favorite, was back on the menu.

The family also returned to a more traditional way of preparing meals. Dishes were cooked from scratch, with fresh ingredients. This took more time, but it did mean everyone could eat the same meal and enjoy it.

There may yet be a “happily ever after” in this story, when the child would be able to eat citrus and enjoy pizza at restaurants. But that remains in the future, perhaps far in the future. For now the family hopes the new menu — free of citric acid — eventually allows the child’s body to heal whatever was damaged when the reaction to citric acid first manifested itself.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.