Understanding the Top Allergies
Food allergies have become an important topic in recent years for a multitude of reasons. Their incidence is on the rise, affecting 30% of adults and 40% of children. People can be allergic to just about anything, but there are 8 allergens that are the most common.
What is an allergy?
When your body is exposed to an irritant (called an allergen), such as pollen, it launches an attack against it. Most of the time, when this happens, we don’t even notice it. Sometimes, if there is an overabundance of the allergen or if your body is particularly sensitive to it, this immune response turns into an overload. Your eyes water, your nose becomes blocked or you get an itchy rash. Some allergens cause life-threatening reactions, such as anaphylaxis, which leads to a sudden drop in blood pressure and a narrowing of the airways.
Foods can also act as allergens. When a person is allergic to a food, they cannot eat it at all. Some allergies are so severe that people can’t even get close to the irritant because breathing or touching it could cause anaphylaxis. An allergy is different from a food sensitivity or intolerance. Intolerances, such as the inability to digest milk (lactose intolerance) are generally not life-threatening, although they do cause discomfort, such as bloating and diarrhea, if ingested.
The Big 8
The “Big 8” are responsible for 90% of registered allergies and the FDA requires that labelling warn consumers of their presence or potential presence in food.
1. Peanuts : Peanuts are actually legumes which, as a group, are responsible for a large number of allergic reactions. People with peanut allergies are not likely to be allergic to other legumes, such as lentils. Children are more likely to develop a peanut allergy if they are already allergic to eggs.
2. Shellfish : Shellfish can also cause severe allergic reactions. Crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, crabs) are the most common, although some allergic reactions can occur with shellfish (clams, mussels, oysters). Shrimp are considered the most allergenic.
3. Fish: Pollock, salmon, cod, tuna, mackerel and snapper are among the fish that most often trigger fish allergies. The allergen in this group is parvalbumin, a muscle protein in fish. These allergies often develop in adulthood and are less likely to be overwhelmed.
4. Milk: Milk allergy is most common in infants and young children. Milk allergy causes an immune response to milk proteins. All milks, including those from cows, goats and sheep, can be a problem. Most children get rid of their milk allergy as they grow up.
5. Eggs: The yolk and white of eggs, also common in children, can trigger a reaction, but in some cases the yolk is less allergenic. Eggs are not only used in food, but also in skin care products and cosmetics that contain them. Most children will overcome their egg allergy.
6. Soy: Within the legume family, soy is an allergy that children are likely to get rid of as they grow older. Here in the U.S., soy is most often found in processed foods, either as soybean oil or soy protein isolate. People allergic to soy can get soy lecithin without any problem.
7. Wheat: Wheat allergies are quite common and usually resolve during childhood. Wheat allergy is different from celiac disease, where gluten causes an inflammatory reaction. Celiac disease triggers a different immune response than other allergens. True wheat allergies are uncommon in adults.
8. Tree nuts: Tree nut allergy is one of the most powerful and common allergens. It affects 1.1% of the world’s population. People with a nut allergy should avoid macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, chestnuts, hazelnuts and pine nuts. Reactions associated with nuts are often severe, with walnuts and cashews causing the most reactions. At least 90% of nut-allergic children will not outgrow their allergy.
Accurate food labelling is essential for people with allergies, but it’s not as easy to be safe when eating out. Don’t be afraid to ask your waiter or chef what’s in the food, including any allergens the food may have come into contact with. It is in your best interest to enjoy your meal safely!