Food allergies affect around 4 percent of adults and 5 percent of children in the United States.
A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system triggers an abnormal response to food.
Symptoms of allergic reaction to a specific food range from sneezing and nasal congestion to anaphylaxis.
Anaphylaxis is a potentially life-threatening response that impairs breathing and sends the body into a state of shock. Anaphylaxis to food leads to around 30,000 visits to the emergency room, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 150 deaths each year in the U.S.
There is currently no cure for food allergies, and avoiding the food to which you are allergic is the only way to prevent a reaction.
However, measures can be taken to reduce the risk of serious health consequences by avoiding food allergens and quickly recognizing and managing allergic reactions to food if they occur.
Here are Medical News Today‘s suggested tips and tools for living well with food allergies.
1. Read food labels
Reading food labels might seem like an obvious way to avoid foods that you are allergic to, but research has indicated that confusing food labels may put consumers with food allergies at an increased risk of facing an allergic reaction.
A study revealed that consumers with concerns about food allergies often misunderstand food labels about food allergen exposure that read “manufactured on shared equipment” or “may contain.”
Individuals with food allergies should stay away from food products with these labels to prevent a severe allergic reaction.
Yet, around 11 percent of the consumers surveyed purchased products with a “may contain” label and 40 percent bought foods with a “manufactured in a facility that also processes” statement on the label.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) is a law that requires that all food labels in the U.S. must list ingredients that may cause an allergic reaction.
Though there are at least 160 foods that can lead to allergic reactions in those with food allergies, the act applies to the eight most common allergenic foods that account for 90 percent of all food reactions.
The eight most allergenic foods include:
- crustacean shellfish
- tree nuts
The FALCPA enforces that any of these eight foods, or any ingredient that contains protein derived from them, are designated as a “major food allergen.”
Food allergens are identified on food labels in one of three ways:
- Ingredient name. For example, the allergen name “milk” may be included in the ingredient name “buttermilk.”
- Following the ingredient name. The food allergen may appear after the ingredient, such as “whey (milk),” “lecithin (soy),” and “flour (wheat).”
- After the ingredients list. A “contains” statement may appear next to the list of ingredients, such as “contains milk, soy, and wheat.”
The FALCPA’s labeling requirements only apply to foods that “may contain” an allergen and not to the potential presence of major food allergens due to cross-contact during manufacturing.
Including warning labels such as “may be prepared in a facility that also uses nuts” or “may contain trace amounts of nuts” is voluntary.
Always be cautious when buying products without labels — such as a cake from a pastry shop.
2. Avoid cross-contact and cross-reactivity
Individuals with food allergies must be aware of the potential cross-contact of non-allergenic with allergenic foods, and cross-reactivity among related foods.
Cross-contact occurs when an allergen is unintentionally transferred from a food that contains the allergen to a food that does not contain the allergen.
Cross-contact could occur when an allergen is applied directly or indirectly to another food.
For example, direct cross-contact is removing cheese from a cheeseburger to make it a hamburger.
Indirect cross-contact would be using the same utensil to turn the hamburger that was used to flip a cheeseburger.
You can avoid cross-contact with the following tips:
Purge your kitchen. Remove all products that you can’t eat from your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.
Clean all cooking apparatus, including cooking utensils, cookware, stovetop, and oven, with soap and water.
Organize separate food preparation areas if you are sharing a kitchen with roommates or family members who eat foods that you can’t.
Cook allergy-safe foods first if you are cooking a range of foods.
Cover allergy-safe foods to prevent them being spluttered with unsafe foods.
Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water if you have handled a food allergen. Soap and water and commercial wipes will eliminate food allergens, but water alone or sanitizing gels won’t.
Scrub down tables and counters with soap and water after cooking every meal.
Never share food to ensure that cross-contact does not occur.
When dining out, be sure to discuss cross-contact and procedures for cooking meals that are allergen-free with restaurant personnel.
Cross-reactivity occurs when the proteins in one food are similar to the proteins in another. The immune system may identify the proteins as being the same and cause an allergic reaction.
Some people that are allergic to shellfish or finned fish may need to avoid eating foods from the entire food group due to high levels of cross-reactivity, while others will have an isolated food allergy — to just swordfish, for example.