About Food Allergies
Food allergy is a serious medical condition affecting up to 15 million people in the United States, including 1 in 13 children. Whether you’re newly diagnosed or brushing up on the facts, learning all you can about the disease is the key to staying safe and living well with food allergies.
What is Food Allergy?
The job of the body’s immune system is to identify and destroy germs (such as bacteria or viruses) that make you sick. A food allergy results when the immune system mistakenly targets a harmless food protein – an allergen – as a threat and attacks it.
Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerances
Unlike other types of food disorders, such as intolerances, food allergies are “IgE mediated.” This means that your immune system produces abnormally large amounts of an antibody called immunoglobulin E — IgE for short. IgE antibodies fight the “enemy” food allergens by releasing histamine and other chemicals, which trigger the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Learning More About Food Allergies
Follow the links to learn more about allergens, symptoms, food allergy reactions, how to manage a food allergy, and other important topics.
The number of Americans affected by food allergies trends higher every year and studies indicate that half the fatal episodes from food allergens occur outside the home. Dining out is a serious concern for customers with food allergies, as well as their family and friends.
Fifteen million Americans with food allergies dine with family and friends where they feel safe. Those who deal with these life-threatening conditions are often unsure which restaurants can safely accommodate them—if at all. Watch the video below, and visit FoodAllergens.com to see why making your restaurant staff allergy-aware can help increase your revenue opportunities. To capitalize on this opportunity, restaurant staff at all levels—from owner-operator to front-of-house and back-of-houses—need to have the basic information required to ensure everyone takes the steps necessary to keep customers safe.
Although nearly any food is capable of causing an allergic reaction, there are eight foods that cause the majority of reactions. These foods are:
Another common allergen is sesame, which affects hundreds of thousands of Americans. The information in this section offers a more in-depth look at each of these common food allergens, and provides guidance for avoiding these ingredients.
While only eight foods (milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy) account for approximately 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions, a person can be allergic to virtually any food.
While the list below is not exhaustive, allergic reactions have been reported to:
Meat (beef, chicken, mutton, and pork)
Seeds (sesame, sunflower, and poppy being the most common)
Spices (caraway, coriander, garlic, mustard, etc.)
Allergic reactions to fresh fruits and vegetables, such as apple, carrot, peach, plum, tomato and banana, to name a few, are often diagnosed as Oral Allergy Syndrome.
Uncommon Food Allergies
Allergic reactions to corn are rare and a relatively small number of case reports can be found in medical literature. However, the reports do indicate that reactions to corn can be severe. Reactions to corn can occur from both raw and cooked corn. Individuals who are allergic to corn should receive individualized expert guidance from their allergists.
Allergies to meats, such as beef, chicken, mutton or pork, are also rare. A person who is allergic to one type of meat may not need to avoid other types of meat. Heating and cooking meat can reduce the allergenicity of product.
Some may wonder whether or not an individual who is allergic to milk should also avoid beef. It is not generally advised for individuals with a milk allergy to also avoid beef, and the majority of those allergic to milk can safely eat beef products. However, one study showed that almost eight percent of the 62 children with milk allergy studied also reacted to beef. The study also suggests that well-cooked beef is less likely to be problematic for those allergic to milk.
Similarly, those with egg allergy are generally not advised to also avoid poultry, and vice versa.
Some people with allergy to mammalian meat experience allergic symptoms 3-6 hours after ingesting beef, pork or lamb. This type of meat allergy has been attributed to allergy to a type of sugar in meat called “alpha-gal”. This type of allergy has been traced to having had tick bites.
Many vaccines contain porcine gelatin as a stabilizer. Allergy to gelatin is a common cause of an allergic reaction to vaccines. Individuals who have experienced symptoms of an allergic reaction after consuming gelatin should discuss this with their health care provider before getting vaccinated. If a severe allergy to gelatin is known, vaccines that contain gelatin as a component should be avoided.
Allergic reactions to seeds can be severe. Sesame, sunflower, and poppy seeds have been known to cause anaphylaxis.
The estimated prevalence of seed allergy is not known. In a study published in 2010, however, researchers at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine concluded that 0.1 percent of the general population may have a sesame allergy, based on a national survey that focused primarily on the prevalence of peanut and tree nut allergy.
Seeds are often used in bakery and bread products, and extracts of some seeds have been found in hair care products.
Some seed oils are highly refined, a process that removes the proteins from the oil. However, as not all seed oils are highly refined, individuals with a seed allergy should be careful when eating foods prepared with seed oils.
Allergies to spices, such as coriander, garlic, and mustard, are rare and are usually mild, although severe reactions to spices have been reported. Some spices cross-react with mugwort and birch pollen, so patients who are sensitive to these environmental allergens are at a higher risk for developing an allergy to spice.
Other Common Allergens
Unfortunately, food is not the only allergen that can cause anaphylaxis, a severe, potentially life-threatening reaction. Below, we cover other common causes of severe reactions –medications, latex, and insect stings.
Anaphylactic reactions to medication typically occur within an hour after taking the drug, but may occur several hours later. It is estimated that up to one percent of the population may be at risk for allergic reactions to medications.
According to literature from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), "The chances of developing an allergic reaction may be increased if the drug is given frequently, or by skin application or injection rather than by mouth. Inherited genetic tendencies of the immune system to develop allergies may also be important. Contrary to popular myth, however, a family history of reaction to a specific drug does not mean that a patient has an increased chance of reacting to the same drug."
Recent research indicates that 90 percent of patients who have a history of allergic reactions to penicillin will be able tolerate the drug. Patients who need penicillin may be able to undergo a physician-supervised desensitization procedure in an effort to change their immune system’s response to the antibiotic. If you are allergic to any antibiotic, you are more likely to react to other drugs than patients who have no medication allergies.
If you experience symptoms of an allergic reaction after taking medication, speak to your doctor. If symptoms are severe, or if they resemble those of anaphylaxis, get emergency medical help immediately.
For more information about allergies to medication, please visit AAAAI’s website.
Latex allergy is most commonly diagnosed in individuals who are exposed to latex frequently, such as those employed in the health care or rubber industry and children with spina bifida and other congenital diseases requiring multiple surgeries.
An estimated one percent of the U.S. population has latex allergy, but the figure is much higher – between 10 percent and 17 percent – among those employed in health care occupations.
Some individuals with latex allergy will also develop reactions when eating foods that cross-react with latex, such as bananas, kiwi, avocados, European chestnuts, and, less commonly, potatoes and tomatoes, and peaches, plums, cherries, and other pitted fruits.
Honeybees, bumblebees, yellow jackets, hornets, wasps, and fire ants are the most common sources of insect stings in the United States. The symptoms of anaphylactic reactions to insect stings usually occur within minutes of the sting.
Insect sting reactions can range from local and mild to life-threatening. Local reactions can involve swelling of an area larger than the sting site (e.g., the entire arm can be swollen after a sting on the hand). This type of reaction may also include nausea and low-grade fever. Insect stings account for about 50 deaths each year in the U.S.
In some instances, insect sting allergy can be cured with immunotherapy, a process in which the doctor gradually administers stronger and stronger doses of the venom over a period of time.
To minimize the risk of an insect sting, avoid brightly colored clothing and scented cosmetics, perfumes, and so forth; avoid walking barefoot; use caution when cooking outdoors; avoid areas where stinging insects congregate; and keep insecticide handy when working outdoors.
More information about insect stings is available from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.