NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County

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So You Have a Food Allergy

So You Have a Food Allergy

            Food allergies affect approximately 2 percent of adults and 4 to 8 percent of children in the United States. Over the last decade, the number of young people with food allergies has dramatically increased.  Food allergies can be serious and life-threatening. Severe reactions kill 100 to 200 Americans per year. Yet many do not take food allergies seriously.  An individual who announces they have an allergy is often met with skepticism, disbelief and comments of “you’re just a fussy eater” or for a child, “they’ll outgrow it”.

            A food allergy is an immune system response. It occurs when the body mistakes a food ingredient, usually a protein (allergen), as harmful and creates a defense system (antibodies) to destroy it. Food allergy symptoms and reactions are a result of the antibodies battling the “invading” food.

            On the hand, a food intolerance is a digestive system response rather than an immune system response. It occurs when something in a food irritates a person’s digestive system or when a person is unable to properly digest or break down the food. Common food intolerances include lactose and gluten.  If one has a food intolerance they can have painful reactions and even require hospitalization but a food intolerance is usually not life-threatening.

            Food intolerance and food allergies may seem similar and are often confused but an allergy is more serious than a food intolerance. The only way to know for sure if you or your child has a food allergy or food intolerance is to have the symptoms evaluated by a board-certified allergist.

            Eight common food allergens are responsible for 90 percent of all allergic reactions in the United States. They are: Soy, Fish, Tree nuts (pecans, walnuts, etc.), Shellfish (crabmeat, shrimp, and lobster), Milk, Eggs, Peanuts and Wheat.

            Common food allergy symptoms include tingling mouth, swelling of tongue or throat, hives, itching, skin rash, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, runny nose, nasal congestion, wheezing, high blood pressure, trouble breathing (anaphylaxis), and even death.  With such a wide ranging gamut of symptoms, it is easy to see why food allergies can be difficult to diagnose.       Each of the symptoms can be mild to severe and can occur within minutes to hours after eating the food.

            Allergies develop within the first one to two years of life. For reasons not entirely understood, research has shown that many food allergies are lost or outgrown over time. Because of this, some allergies tend to be more common among children, while others are more common among adults.

 

            Although new treatments for some food allergies show promise, currently, there is no cure. Strict avoidance (do not taste, smell, or touch it) is critical in preventing a reaction. For some people, just one bite can bring on a severe reaction (anaphylaxis) that can be fatal without appropriate medical intervention.

            The U.S. Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires food labels to clearly identify all allergen ingredients by listing food allergens in “plain language.” This means that if a food contains one of the eight major food allergens or any ingredient that contains the protein derived from any of these eight foods, the label must be written in language that is easy to understand. For example, if whey, a product derived from milk, is used as a food ingredient, then the food label must include the word “milk” next to the ingredient. This plain-language declaration has made it easier for parents, children, and caregivers to read a food label and recognize if one of the eight allergens is present and must be avoided.

            A major step in safely dealing with allergies is being aware of how “cross-contact” can happen. Cross-contact is when a food containing the allergen touches or is transferred to another food that does not contain it. For example: When eating out, ask about the ingredients used and how foods are cooked. If allergen-containing foods, such as fish, are cooked in the same oil with a non-allergen-containing food, such as chicken, bits and pieces of the fish (allergen) may be left behind in the oil after cooking. These particles may then be transferred to the chicken or any other foods fried in the same oil and can cause the person who consumes the cross-contaminated food to have an allergic reaction.

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