Food allergies are becoming a growing public health concern in the United States. More than 12 million Americans have food allergies, including three million children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food allergies result in over 300,000 ambulatory-care visits a year among children.
A food allergy occurs when your body’s immune system reacts to a substance (usually a protein) in a food item that your body sees as dangerous. This in turn sets off a chain reaction within your body. Ingestion of this substance may trigger the sudden release of chemicals, including histamine, resulting in symptoms of an allergic reaction. These symptoms can occur within minutes and can be mild (such as rashes, hives, itching, swelling, or a runny nose) to severe (such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness, etc.) and even life-threatening. Most food allergies develop early in life, and many are outgrown upon reaching adulthood.
However, many people who believe they have a food allergy are actually suffering from a food intolerance, which is not life-threatening. A food intolerance is different from a food allergy. A food intolerance occurs when your body is unable to digest a certain component of a food, such as lactose (a sugar found in milk) or gluten (wheat, rye, oats, and barley); monosodium glutamate; or sulfites (a preservative). Symptoms of a food intolerance may be unpleasant, including abdominal cramping or diarrhea.
A skin prick test or a blood test for IgE antibodies is commonly used to begin to determine if an allergy exists. A skin prick test is usually less expensive and can be done in the doctor’s office. To determine if you have a food intolerance, a simple blood test called the Mediator Release Test (MRT) can be performed as part of the LEAP nutrition program. It tests 150 different food and chemicals for delayed hypersensitivity reactions (food sensitivities) by measuring the changes in immune cells that occur when different foods and chemicals are introduced into your body.
Numerous foods are known to cause food allergies. However, the following food items account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions:
- Tree nuts (walnuts, cashews)
- Fish (pollock, salmon, cod, tuna, snapper, eel, and tilapia)
Did you know that some beauty products also contain common allergens, such as milk, egg, wheat, and tree nuts? Unfortunately, there is no cure for food allergies or intolerances. Therefore, people with food allergies or intolerances need to avoid food items that make them sick. Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction, and most people who have had an allergic reaction to something they ate thought that it was safe.
To avoid eating a food item that is unsafe, it is important that food labels be read carefully before purchasing or consuming food items. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that FDA-regulated manufactured food products that contain the following ingredients list these ingredients on the product label:
- Crustacean shellfish (the specific type)
- Tree nuts
Eating out can also be challenging for people who suffer from food allergies and intolerances, as many menu items and dishes include a combination of ingredients. Food items that trigger allergies might be prepared on the same counters, with the same utensils, or in the same pans as non-allergy causing ingredients. As a result, cross-contact can occur, meaning that a food allergen can sneak into what may otherwise be a safe meal.
If you have a food allergy or intolerance, be sure to speak with whoever is preparing your food to inform them of your allergy or intolerance, and ask them to be especially careful when preparing your food.