Food allergens are more common these days

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Over the past few decades, the number of people with apparent food allergies has risen.

According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, a U.S. education group, about 12 million Americans have a food allergy. That’s around 4 percent of the population.

Scientists are not entirely sure of the cause, though many believe it comes from a mix of genetic and environmental factors. With such an abundant number of people with allergies, it can be beneficial to know the best ways to avoid certain foods.

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There are eight common food allergens: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts. These eight foods account for more than 90 percent of all documented U.S. food allergies.

If contact with these foods occur, the allergic reaction can vary significantly. Some people may simply experience an itchy tongue and swollen lips, but in severe cases, a person can go into anaphylaxis, which can lead to death. The most common reactions are nausea, wheezing, shortness of breath, hives, rashes, swelling of various body parts, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

For those living with a food allergy, sometimes finding recipes can be a struggle. Many people find substitutes for their forbidden foods. People with a peanut allergy can try pumpkin seed butter in the place of peanut butter, and people who can’t consume wheat can replace traditional flour with rice flour and still enjoy popular baked goods.

In the past, those with food allergies may have spent a lot of time searching for alternative food choices, but now the food industry has evolved to the point where there are new and creative options everywhere. Whether the industry is accommodating the growing number of food allergies or trying to keep up with the most recent fad diets, the added ease of shopping for people with food allergies comes as a relief.

The Food and Drug Administration has strict rules on food labeling regarding allergens, which should make the task of spotting certain foods easy. The FDA requires any packaged food product to have allergen labeling. However, because of the many terms associated with allergens, those at risk should pay special attention to the ingredient list and be able to recognize terms associated with the allergen they are allergic to. For instance, other words for egg are albumin, meringue and lecithin. Soy could be listed as tofu, edamame, miso or tempeh. Words like casein and whey mean milk.

Warning! Because some manufacturers may produce products that do not actually contain an allergen, but was produced in the same facility of a product with an allergen, there can be cross contact, which could still lead to an allergic reaction. And even though the FDA is strict, warnings like “may contain traces of peanuts” are not required by law. So while living with a food allergy is far more manageable than in the past, it still demands diligence by those with an allergy, and those who cook for them.

Source Janet Johnson, Food Safety Extension Agent