The topic of food allergies has been a growing conversation over the last few years. With all the increasing nut and gluten allergies it seems like everyone has an allergy to something. However, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) less than two percent of the population is affected by allergies. Though children have a higher incidence of allergies most of them are outgrown. First, we should begin with defining what is a food allergy. According to the IFIC a food allergy is any adverse reaction to an otherwise harmless foods or food component that involves the body’s immune system. Most of these reactions normally involve annoyance of the skin, gastrointestinal tract or/and respiratory system. In extreme cases, people who are very sensitive can be irritated from simply touching or inhaling the food product. When a person is having an allergy attack, symptoms can range from swelling, itching, nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, cramping, diarrhea, hives, eczema, runny nose, sneezing, shortness of breath and redness of the skin. Severe food allergies can be life threatening which is called anaphylaxis. This type of response to a food allergy is where people need epinephrine by autoinjector (Epi-pen). If diagnosed with a food allergy it is important to be able to read nutrition labels to learn how to properly avoid the allergens.
Being able to read a nutrition label correctly is essential for avoidance of allergens. In 2004 congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) that applies to food labeling regulations on both domestic and imported foods by the FDA. It’s important to note that prior to January 1, 2006 the FALCPA did not need to label food allergens, though most of these foods should no longer be on store shelves. This labeling law must clearly identify the food sources name for what the FALCPA defines as the 8 most common food allergens. These food allergens are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy. These were chosen because they cause more than 90% of all food allergy reactions according to the IFIC. Due to the severity of these allergens they must be labeled due to food sources name and not just the common name. As an example, if the ingredient list states flour (common name) it must either be followed by in parentheses wheat (food source) or immediately next to the ingredient list.
Example: lecithin (soy), flour (wheat), whey (milk)
Example: lecithin, flour, whey. This product contains soy, wheat and milk
So how is a food allergy diagnosed? Many people may believe they have a food allergy when they either do not or they may just have intolerance. Diagnosing an allergy maybe easy if the symptoms are consistent. Such as a peanut allergy in a child. Important information when determining the severity of a food allergy is the amount eaten that causes the reaction type and how long after eating the allergen does a reaction occur. Creating a food journal alone will not prove if you have a food allergy but it can suggest a relationship between the two. A common treatment is the elimination diet. This will be used to help diagnose a food allergy and to help treat an allergy. This is when suspected food allergens are completely eliminated from your diet for several weeks. Since this may also cause the start of malnutrition, it is important to only do this under medical supervision. Prick testing is also used when seeing a certified allergist. This is when diluted extract of specific foods are placed on the skin then scratched to see if a bump and/or redness surrounding it occurs. If a bump and redness occur this would result in a positive allergy test. You can also have an endoscopy, colonoscopy and blood tests done to rule out certain allergens.
If diagnosed with a food allergy it is extremely important to be well educated on how to avoid such foods. You should check the product list every time you buy a food product as food companies are always changing their ingredients. Something that may have been safe a month ago may not be safe your next purchase. Also, remember that the FALCPA’s labeling requirements do not need to monitor cross contamination at processing plants. So depending on the severity of your allergy you may need to contact the manufacturer. The FALCPA is trying to create a way to better manage this. Most recently you may see on some packages “produced in a facility that also uses (allergen).” Regardless of how severe an allergy is, educate yourself on how to properly avoid any substances containing that allergen.