Balsam of Peru is a common ingredient in foods and household products that causes allergic reactions in some people. It is important that those with allergies or sensitivities are aware of foods that contain the mixture. Avoidance requires careful inquiry about the ingredients used in food preparation, especially in restaurants where ingredient lists are not readily available and employees don't always know ingredient properties.
Origin of Balsam of Peru
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Balsam of Peru is harvested from the Peru balsam tree in South America. The substance is boiled from the bark of the tree and collected as a secretion from the wood of the tree where bark has been stripped. A thick brown liquid, the unprocessed Peru balsam has a bitter warm taste and the aroma of vanilla and cinnamon. Other common names are balsam Peru, black balsam, Peruvian balsam, Indian balsam and Peru balsam.
Substances in Balsam of Peru
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Chemical components and other substances added to the balsam of Peru mixture also cause allergic reactions, most typically contact dermatitis. Fluid filled blisters, swelling, itching and redness are common symptoms. Although Balsam of Peru is no longer widely used as food flavouring, one encounter is enough for the highly sensitive to want to avoid it.
Various balsam of Peru mixtures contain the following substances or their derivatives: benzyl benzoate and other benzoates, benzyl acetate, benzoic acid, benzaldehyde, benzyl salicylate, cinnamic aldehyde, citrus peel, clove, coniferyl alcohols, coumarin, eugenol, farnesol, isoeugenol, nerolidol, resinous substances, tea tree oil and vanillin. The cinnamates, benzoates, and terpenoids appear to be the most common culprits when it comes to allergic reactions.
Sensitive people often react to one or more of these ingredients, and allergy testing is necessary to identify the exact allergen. Look for these chemicals on food labels and approach with care.
Flavoured Beverages and Mixes
Favourite foods that may contain balsam of Peru are chocolate, cookies, cereals, desserts, sauce and sauce mixes. Since mixtures and ingredients are used to flavour other items, tracking offending compounds incorporated into other foodstuffs covers a lot of territory and makes identification even more difficult. Aperitifs, wines and liquors should be checked since Peru balsam is used as a flavouring to impart a warm, vanilla note. Colas, sodas and flavoured beverages are the most likely non-alcoholic sources of the substance.
A number of spices, spice mixes and flavourings used in foods including Jamaican pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, paprika, curry and vanilla are related to balsam of Peru and can cause similar reactions in sensitive individuals.
Some kinds of chewing gum and flavoured tobaccos, although not foods, also contain balsam of Peru. A number of topical medications, lip medications and ointments contain the ingredient, so physicians and pharmacists need to know if patients are allergic to balsam of Peru.