Food Allergies: How to Be Smart & Safe

Food Allergies: How to Be Smart & Safe

If you or your child suffer from food allergies to one or more of the top food allergens, including eggs, soy, milk, wheat, or nuts, you’re all too familiar with scrutinizing ingredient labels to make sure the offending food isn’t listed. These, and other foods pose a real threat to the 15 million people in the United States, including 1 in 13 children who suffer from food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

How Do Food Allergies Develop? Food allergies develop when the immune system attacks a usually harmless substance and creates specific antibodies for the allergen (the substance that causes the reaction). From this point on, whenever you eat the food you’re allergic to, the antibodies respond by releasing histamine which causes allergic symptoms to appear. Often there isn’t a reaction the first time you’re exposed to the allergen, but once your body becomes ‘sensitized’  it will respond faster the next time–usually within a half hour–and the reaction can be mild to severe.

Is your family at risk? Those at risk include people who have a family history of allergies and people who have other kinds of allergies, including asthma. Approximately 6 percent of allergy sufferers have food/drug allergies as their primary allergy, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and a food allergy is more common among children than adults. Ninety percent of all allergic food reactions are caused by 8 main culprits, namely eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish, soy, shellfish and cow’s milk. If you develop symptoms shortly after eating a particular food, like wheezing, an itchy mouth, abdominal pain, or hives, you may have a food allergy.

Why Are Food Allergies On The Rise? Food allergy rates have more than doubled over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there are a few theories about why this may be happening. The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ proposed by British researcher David Strachan more than 20 years ago indicated that reduced exposure to germs and bacteria early in life could weaken the immune system and result in higher allergy rates. There also seems to be a higher incidence of allergies in more developed countries.  So possible environmental factors, such as exposure to pollution and allergens, could also be contributing. A study presented at the annual American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology indicated that global warming may be limited with increased incidence of hay fever. With this in mind, perhaps changes in the environment are also impacting our food, making us more susceptible to food allergies.

Tips for Dealing With A True Food Allergy. First, it’s important to determine whether you have a true food allergy or a food intolerance. A food allergy is an immune response whereas food intolerance is not. In general, people with food intolerances don’t have an acute health risk when they come into contact with small amounts of the problem food (e.g. if you’re lactose intolerant). There are certain clues that will let you know whether it’s a true food allergy or a food intolerance, but you should see your doctor to know for sure. He or she can do the proper testing and diagnosis procedures so you’ll know exactly what foods you need to avoid and what foods you can enjoy without being overly restrictive.

If you or your child has been diagnosed with a true food allergy, become a savvy label reader. Look out for any ingredients that may contain the foods you’re allergic to, including the main culprits mentioned, or other trigger foods such as food colorings, sunflower and sesame seeds or oils, or even preservatives and sweeteners such as aspartame. Also, pay strict attention to potential cross contamination in food processing facilities as well as in your own home. For instance, if a family member has a gluten allergy, you shouldn’t toast gluten free bread in the same toaster that was used for bread containing gluten. And if your kid has a peanut allergy, you should make sure that any dishes and utensils that have come in contact with peanuts aren’t used for foods being served to your child. If you or your child has a severe allergy resulting in an anaphylactic reaction, make sure to always have access to an epi-pen which can be prescribed by your doctor or allergist and carry it with you at all times.

About Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE.