May 13 to 19 marks Food Allergy Awareness Week, which shines a light on food allergies and their implications.
An estimated 15 million people in the U.S. suffer from food allergies – about 4 percent of adults and 6 to 8 percent of children. Although more than 160 foods have been identified as containing naturally-occurring proteins that cause allergic reactions, about 90 percent of food allergic reactions stem from eight common foods. These include peanuts, milk, soy, eggs, wheat (gliadin/gluten), crustacea, fish and tree nuts such as walnuts and almonds.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction range from throat swelling, vomiting and respiratory symptoms to anaphylactic shock and, in the most severe cases, death.
And it’s not just ingesting the actual food, such as peanuts. Allergic reactions also can be trigged by trace amounts of allergenic residue on other food products.
In recent years, allergens increasingly have been in the spotlight, most noticeably when they were declared adulterants by the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011.
Prior to the legislation, food producers were required to label products that contained or could contain allergens. Food processing equipment undergoes rigorous testing and cleaning to ensure an allergen doesn’t contaminate an allergen-free food product. With the new regulations, food products still must be labeled but allergens now are treated like pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella.
Here are some common questions regarding food allergies:
What is an allergic reaction?
When a person who is allergic to a food item ingests the food they’re allergic to, their immune system mistakes the allergenic protein for something harmful. A reaction occurs when the body releases chemicals, such as histamine, which causes either mild symptoms such as swelling, hives or a rash, or severe symptoms such as respiratory difficulty or anaphylactic shock. For an inside look at an allergic reaction, check out this animation from the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
What is anaphylactic shock?
Anaphylactic shock includes milder symptoms of an allergic reaction but also include a shock reaction – a drop in blood pressure and sometimes cardiac arrhythmia. If not promptly treated, it can be life-threatening.
How do I know if I’m allergic?
If you think you’re allergic to certain foods, a trip to the doctor can help you figure it out. Allergy tests include a skin prick test or a blood test.
Check out the resources below for more information on National Food Allergy Awareness Week, food allergen resources and recent news articles regarding allergens and their impact.
- Neogen’s Food Allergen Handbook
- The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease website
- The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network’s Food Allergy Awareness Week website
- Tips for managing food allergies – The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network
- Food Allergy Research & Resource Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
- Peanut-free at the ballpark: More baseball teams create sections without peanuts for those with allergies – Neogen blog post
- Tragic tale for Food Allergy Awareness Week – The Canberra Times (video)
- Local businesses, nationwide chains offer gluten-free options – WPXI Pittsburgh