Food allergies affect 32 million Americans, of which 26 million are adults. The reaction can be life-threatening with 200,000 requiring emergency medical care yearly related to reactions from food. In children there has been a 50% increase between 1997 and 2011 in the occurrence, currently, 1 in 13 children have a food allergy. Many times, an allergy is confused with an intolerance, so what is the difference? A food allergy is defined as a food that causes a harmful immune response, usually involving a protein food. That protein is referred to as an allergen. The symptoms can be mild to fatal. An intolerance does not involve the immune system. It could be a certain ingredient or quantity of food that might be difficult to digest. An example would be the enzyme lactose in milk, which causes lactose intolerance. Symptoms can be like an allergy-causing discomfort, but they are not fatal. Allergic response symptoms occur within minutes to a few hours after eating. The most common include swelling, sneezing, and nausea. Symptoms affect our skin, breathing, and intestines. Common reactions of the skin include hives, itchy eyes, and swelling around the lips, tongue, and face. A dry cough, runny nose, wheezing, or shortness of breath can be respiratory reactions and nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea are digestive reactions. If the reaction is severe, it can cause anaphylaxis, which causes blood pressure to drop, unconsciousness, and potentially death.
There have been more than 170 foods that have caused an allergic reaction, but these eight are the most common. They are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, and crustacean shellfish. How do you know if you have an intolerance or a food allergy? Medical testing that is done by an allergist is the best way to determine and help provide a management plan. Testing can include a skin-prick test, blood tests, and an oral food challenge. Once you have a medical diagnosis of an allergy or intolerance it’s important to understand what to look for on a food label when selecting the foods, you choose to consume. The US Food and Drug Administration regulates the labeling of most foods, and the top eight allergens are required to be identified on the label. This is where you will see “Contains milk and eggs”. Some allergens are listed out of precaution since they are made in the same plant as other foods with potential allergens. This would be identified as “may contain milk and eggs”. Be sure to read each of the ingredients which are listed in order by weight to understand what is in the food you are selecting. It’s critical to be aware of other names for common foods. For example, if you are allergic to eggs you would want to avoid the ingredient albumin, or for milk avoid casein. Once the food is purchased you want to keep it safe and not cross-contact it with other foods. The first step is washing your hands before handling the food item, and if allergen-free foods are being prepared for a meal, cook them first. Kitchen surfaces, equipment, and cooking tools should always be cleaned, but for those with food allergies, separate cooking tools may be helpful to ensure safety. When dining out always alert your server to your food allergy to avoid possible allergic reactions. Depending on your allergy skipping sauces, breaded foods or mixed entrees can help avoid allergens. If serving tools are shared between entrees or food items, that can also be a source of cross-contact. Do your part to learn the label lingo of foods you purchase, and when possible, seek out menus in advance and help friends and family around you that suffer from allergies to feel included in a meal even with allergy restrictions.
For additional information visit Food Allergy Research and Education at www.foodallergy.org