Making Sense of Salicylates

Dried apricots, dates, raisins and various nuts, vintage wooden background in a selective focus

If dried fruits make you itchy, berries make you wheezy, or tomatoes hurt your tummy, you could be sensitive to salicylates.


Salicylic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in many plants and foods, and has been synthesised also to be used as an ingredient in medicines (most notably aspirin), shampoos, personal care products, cleaning products, and as a preservative. Both natural and synthetic salicylates can be problematic for those who are reactive.


If you react to salicylates, you are more likely to also be sensitive to other naturally occurring food chemicals (such as amines and glutamate), and to synthetic additives such as food colourings, flavour enhancers and preservatives.


For those who are sensitive, often eating even a small amount of a high salicylate food can trigger symptoms.


Common symptoms of salicylate sensitivity include:

  • Urticaria (Itchy skin), hives or rashes
  • Swelling
  • Digestive discomfort (pain, bloating etc) or diarrhoea
  • Headaches
  • Breathing problems or asthma
  • Sinus issues and nasal polyps
  • Itchy watery eyes

but also can include vague feelings of general unwellness, etc etc


It is near impossible to completely avoid all salicylates, but reducing the foods with high levels of salicylates can provide relief.  


Salicylates are found in plants, and in higher concentrations in plants that are concentrated by drying or juicing or making into sauces pastes or jams. So while tomatoes may be high in salicylates, tomato paste will be higher. Raw tomatoes will have higher levels than cooked tomatoes though- it’s tricky! Dried fruits such as apricots, raisins, dates and prunes have extremely high levels. Meats, seafood, dairy products and grains are low in salicylates.


You can see how a low-salicylate diet could have its problems, specifically a lack of fresh fruit (and therefore vitamin C and other key antioxidants). This is why it’s important to not avoid salicylate foods for longer than you have to, to work out what your personal tolerance limit is, and to work with your naturopath or practitioner to reduce sensitivity and reactivity by improving tissue and immune health and robustness.


High Salicylate Foods include:

Herbs & spices: Allspice, aniseed, black pepper, cardamom, cayenne, celery powder, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, curry powder, dill, fenugreek, garam masala, ginger, liquorice, mace, mint, mustard, oregano, paprika, rosemary, sage, tarragon, turmeric, thyme.

Sauces and Condiments: most commercial or store-bought gravies, sauces and pastes (eg. tomato paste, worcester sauce, gravy mix), jams, marmalades, fruit/mint/honey flavouring, chewing gum, white and cider vinegars

Fruits: Stone fruits (Apricots, Plum, Prunes, Cherry), Berries (Blackberry, Blackcurrant, Blueberry, Boysenberry, Cranberry, Currants, Loganberry, Raspberry, Redcurrant, Strawberry), Guava, Dates, Grapes (and Raisins, sultanas), Oranges (and Tangerines, Tangelos), Pineapple. Rockmelon, and some apples. Avocado is high in salicylates but not as high as the other fruits listed.

Vegetables: Capsicum, Courgette, Gherkins, Chilli Peppers, Olives, Radish, Tomato

Drinks: All fruit cordials, fruit juice, peppermint tea, black tea, coffee.

Also water chestnuts & almonds! Other nuts and seeds and some nut-based oils may also be problematic.

Nb. Every list you consult on this subject will be slightly different, as salicylates are everywhere! (But we have tried to include the very highest levels in our lists)


What can I do about it?

The first step is obviously to determine if salicylates are your problem, or just a few key foods that may contain salicylates. For example, some people have a problem with salicylates generally, while others just react to all stone fruits and too much capsicum. You can work this out using individual testing, or through an elimination diet with a practitioner.


Step 2 involves reducing reactivity. There have been only limited studies done specifically on reducing salicylate sensitivity, but in practice we know that anything which strengthens the digestive tract and reduces reactivity overall is useful for reducing reactivity. Fish oils have been shown at high doses to reduce reactivity to salicylates, and we know already that the DHA and EPA found in fish oils reduces inflammation and allergy generally in the body. There are other natural compounds which provide similar results. Some herbal medicines possess anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory properties. Nutrients such as Quercetin can also be useful here. Ultimately strengthening the gut is key to providing long-term positive outcomes.


Step 3 involves re-introducing your reactive foods and finding your tolerance limit. Many people can have a little bit of something but not alot, eg. a little bit of dried apricot in their muesli is fine but a whole handful of them wouldn’t suit.


As with all reactivities, its highly individual, and each person will react slightly differently, and to different things. You may also find you are more vulnerable at certain times, for example when you’re very stressed, or pre-menstrual, or have been over-indulging in other areas!


Remember, figuring out what your triggers are is the first important step on your path to better health and wellness, to taking back control of your health and wellbeing, and not feeling at the mercy of your food!


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