Reactions can be caused by up to 170 different foods – everything from milk, eggs and peanuts, to soy, fish and tree nuts. And they can be fatal.
For many, food allergies seem daunting and difficult to understand. So here we’re going to run through the basics on food allergens, which foods are most closely associated with them, and how to keep those around you safe and well.
Allergy or intolerance?
Firstly, it’s important to understand the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance.
An allergy is an immune system response to a food protein that’s consumed or inhaled. The body’s immune system reacts by releasing histamine and other chemicals to attack the protein.
These chemicals trigger allergic symptoms that can range from mild – such as a runny nose and itchy skin – to severe, like anaphylaxis, which can include swelling of the airways, difficulty breathing, a drop in blood pressure and unconsciousness. This reaction can be fatal if not treated in time.
A food intolerance, on the other hand, occurs when the digestive system responds badly to a particular food. Usually this results in digestive discomfort, with stomach cramps or diarrhoea the telltale symptoms.
The Common Culprits
While the list of allergens is long, and you should consider a wide range of foods, the majority of reactions are caused by a manageable list of common allergens.
For example, the ‘Big 8’ under United States law are eggs, milk, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. The European Union requires that 14 allergens are labelled, or indicated as being present, on food packaging.
If you’re preparing food for someone you know has an allergy, always check your fresh ingredients, as well as the contents of any packaged food. Manufacturers are required to highlight the foods which are allergens.
Check labels for phrases like “may contain...” or “made in a facility that also processes...” to alert you to allergen sources.
If in doubt, it’s best to check with the person who has the allergy, who will know best which food could trigger an unwanted reaction.
And if you’re feeding a young child, always check with their carer before giving them any food.
When you’re cooking you can use a variety of methods (favoured by professionals) to substitute food allergens in your kitchens.
Check up on allergies
Just as it’s good practice to understand which foods can cause allergies and how to avoid them, it’s important to know what to do if someone does have a reaction.
Since allergies can begin or worsen at any time in a person’s life, it’s possible that a dinner guest or family member could experience a reaction, even if you’ve checked your ingredients with them beforehand.
If someone does exhibit allergic symptoms, ask again if they have food allergies. Many people with known food allergies carry medication. If they’re having trouble breathing, stay calm and call the emergency services immediately.
Anaphylaxis can occur within seconds or minutes, can worsen quickly, and can be fatal, although most allergies can be treated effectively if help arrives quickly.
Record what and how much the person ate and share the information with the emergency services. Preserve any suspect food.
Let people know!
Perhaps the most useful thing to remember about allergies is the importance of letting people know if you or your family members suffers from them. And if you’re feeding friends, ask them!
By understanding food allergies we can all help to keep those around us fit and healthy. So spread the word – let’s talk food allergies!
If you are a Chef, you can find tips for professionals at NutriPro.