About 32 million Americans have food allergies. Food allergies can develop at any time, even to a food that you’ve safely eaten before. They tend to first appear in young children, but about 15% of individuals with food allergies are diagnosed as adults. Some children may outgrow certain food allergies as they get older but many food allergies are lifelong.
Food allergies occur when the body’s immune system sees a harmless food protein (an allergen) as an invader. The allergen triggers a chain reaction within your body and symptoms usually develop within a few minutes to two hours after eating a food. Symptoms can affect different parts of the body and can be mild (few hives, itching) to very severe (trouble breathing), potentially life-threatening.
Many people mistake food intolerances for a food allergy. Food intolerance occurs when your body is unable to digest a certain component of a food such as lactose, a sugar found in milk. Food intolerances can be very uncomfortable, depending on the side effects but do not involve the immune system. Symptoms may include abdominal cramping or diarrhea, but they are not life-threatening. If you react to eating a particular food, see your doctor to determine whether you have a food intolerance or a food allergy.
While more than 170 food items have been reported as causing an allergic reaction in the US, the following nine common foods are known as the “BIG 8” and account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions in Americans: milk, eggs, peanuts , tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish, soy and wheat. To help avoid the major food allergens, the US Food and Drug Administration has mandated food companies specify on product labels if any of the eight major food allergens are contained in the food or beverage.
In April 2021, sesame was recognized as the ninth major food allergen. However, labeling of sesame as an allergen will not be required until Jan. 1, 2023.
Strict avoidance is the only way to manage a food allergy. For those with food allergies, ensuring that they don’t eat foods they’re allergic to is an everyday challenge. Allergenic foods may be prepared on the same surfaces or with the same utensils as non-allergy causing ingredients. Through cross-contact, a food allergen can mix into what may otherwise be a safe food.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the following tips for those with food allergies or food intolerance.
If you have a food allergy, it’s important to inform whoever is preparing the food of your allergy and ask them to be careful when preparing your food.
Ensure that the teachers, nurse, and administrators at your child’s school or childcare center are aware of your child’s food allergies and that they can recognize and respond to adverse reactions your child may experience. Inform your coworkers of allergies you have. Some people are familiar with food allergies, but others may need your help in keeping your risk for exposure low.
Meet with a registered dietitian. An RD can help you determine which foods and beverages are safe to eat and how best to avoid foods that may cause a reaction. Restricting certain foods can cause your diet to lack important nutrients, like certain vitamins and minerals. An RD can help ensure you get the nutrition you need for your health and lifestyle.
Read labels carefully. Ingredients of products can be changed without notice, so review ingredient lists every time you buy a food or beverage, even if it is a familiar one. Cosmetics and beauty products also may contain common allergens such as milk, egg, wheat, and tree nuts. To learn more about food labeling including tips to avoid common allergens, visit foodallergy.org/newtofoodallergy.