It seems that we are hearing more about food allergies and avoidances these days, from schools banning peanut products to people experimenting with a gluten-free diet. With this increased awareness and exposure, some people may wonder if it’s just part of a trend. Unfortunately, food allergies are real and can cause very serious symptoms, and can even result in death.
A food allergy results when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks a food protein (allergen). Eight food items cause 90 percent of all reactions. Those items include milk, soybeans, peanuts, shellfish, fish, tree nuts, eggs, and wheat. Roughly 15 million people in the U.S. have food allergies (including 1 in 13 children). When a person eats something he or she is allergic to, the immune system works to get rid of that protein (allergen) by producing destructive chemicals. Those chemicals can cause reddish, swollen or itchy skin, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, a runny nose, and other similar irritating symptoms. However, those chemicals could also cause trouble swallowing, a drop in blood pressure, or even death from anaphylaxis, such as with 13-year-old Natalie Giorgi .
Part of the confusion about food allergies is that some people may have a food intolerance, which can cause some of the same symptoms as a true food allergy. Other than celiac disease (an adverse reaction to gluten, which is found in wheat), food intolerances do not involve the immune system, but generally affect the digestive system.
September is National Food Safety Education Month, and in 2013, the spotlight for the month is on increasing food allergen awareness. Whether you make food to sell or share with others, work in a restaurant, or are preparing food for you and/or your family, it is increasingly important for all the links in the chain of food from producer to consumer to “avoid a reaction by taking action.” Consumers with food allergies must read food labels carefully to avoid problematic ingredients and also avoid cross-contact of foods containing allergens with those that do not contain allergens. When dining out, ask the restaurant or food service location about the content of the foods, as well as their allergen handling methods.
Read more on food allergens and intolerances at http://missourifamilies.org/features/nutritionarticles/nut339.htm and on gluten-free foods at: http://nutritionmythbusters.blogspot.com/2013/08/myth-its-impossible-to-find-gluten-free.html
Londa Nwadike, PhD, Extension Food Safety Specialist,