Understanding Food Allergies

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For all the hype one would expect food allergies to be a very common occurrence, but surprisingly only 4-8 percent of children and 2 percent of adults have true food allergies. Many times people will say they have a food allergy when probably the reaction is more likely a food intolerance. You might ask is there a difference and the answer according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases part of the National Institutes of Health, would be a very loud “YES!”

A food allergy is defined as an abnormal response to food involving the body’s immune system. When an allergen, a substance that causes an allergic reaction usually the protein part of the food, is eaten, the body produces an antibody called Immunoglobin E in response.

The immune response can cause numerous and/or multiple reactions such as: runny nose; itchy eyes; hives, rashes, or eczema around the mouth or other areas of the body; GI or stomach distress like nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; asthma-type symptoms specifically difficulty with breathing, coughing, and/ or wheezing.

In some people, food allergies can cause what is called anaphylaxis reaction, a severe reaction to an allergen which can involve the whole body reacting with some of the symptoms including: itching or tingling in hands, feet, lips or scalp; fainting; hoarseness, throat tightness or a lump in the throat; difficulty breathing with wheezing and chest tightness; and in some cases death.

The most common foods to cause food allergies for children are: Milk, Eggs, Peanuts, Wheat, Soy, and Tree Nuts (like walnuts and pecans).

The most common foods to cause food allergies for adults are: Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Fish, Shellfish.

A food intolerance is defined as an abnormal response to food that does NOT involve the immune system. Food intolerance is much more common than food allergies although the symptoms may look the same, they are much less in severity and not usually life threatening. Food intolerance symptoms typically are GI/stomach problems, hives and/or itching. The most common example of a food intolerance is lactose intolerance or also known as lactase deficiency. The intolerance is actually to the sugar in milk known as lactose. The discomfort due to lactose intolerance is generally GI in nature and the immune system is not compromised. In actuality, people with lactose intolerance can enjoy dairy products in small amounts up to their individual tolerance level without feeling symptoms.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy. The only sure way to determine if you are allergic to a food is to have a doctor do allergy testing to find out which food(s) you are allergic to. There is no cure, proven treatments, or medicines that can be taken to stop food allergies. The only way to stop food allergy reactions is to avoid the offending food or the food protein. For example, if you are allergic to peanuts, then you would want to avoid everything made with peanut products like peanut butter, peanut oils, and peanut flour. Sometimes in our processed foods it can be difficult to identify all the other names food proteins can be called. Below is a list to assist you when you are reading food ingredient labels.

Milk Proteins:

  • Casein, caseinates, renner casein
  • Lactalbumin, lactalbumin phosphate, lactoglobulin, lactulose

Egg Proteins:

  • Albumin (also spelled albumen)
  • Meringue or meringue powder
  • These items also may include egg protein: artificial flavors, lecithin, macaroni, marzipan, marshmallows, nougat, and pasta.

Peanut Proteins/Peanut Products:

  • Artificial nuts, beer nuts, ground nuts, mixed nuts, monkey nuts, nut pieces
  • Cold pressed, expelled or extruded peanut oil or arachis oil
  • Mandelonas, NuNuts-which are altered peanuts Peanut Butter, peanut flour
  • These items may include peanut proteins: African, Chinese, Indonesian, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese dishes, baked goods, candy, chili, egg rolls, enchilada sauce, flavoring, marzipan, nougat, and sunflower seeds.


Information from: Understanding Food Allergies and Intolerance, www.rd411.com; Food Allergies and Reactions, www.aaaai.org; The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, www.foodallergy.org; Food Allergy-An Overview, www.nih.gov. Nutrition Education for MARCH 2007. Produced by Meals On Wheels, Inc., of Tarrant County by Sherry Simon, R.D./L.D. For questions regarding nutrition education contact: Sherry Simon, R.D./L.D., Director of Nutrition Services for Meals On Wheels, Inc. of Tarrant County at 817-336-0912 or email: ssimon@mealsonwheels.org. Website: mealsonwheels.org 

Posted in Nutritional Education.