Debbie Turner, Dietitian
Food Allergy Basics
Did you know as many as 15 million Americans have a food allergy, including approximately 6 million children? People can be allergic to any food, but most people in the United States are allergic to milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc.), fish, or shellfish.
Having a food allergy is different for each person. some people are allergic to just one food, others to many. some people experience mild reactions, and others could die without emergency medical help.
What Is Food Allergy?
Food allergy is like any other allergy, except that a food protein causes the allergy instead of pollen, pet hair, or even smoke. Allergies occur when the immune system mistakenly identifies a harmless substance (in this case, a food) as harmful to the body and attacks it. when the substance enters the body, the immune system releases chemicals and histamines, which cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
A food-allergic reaction can affect the skin, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or the respiratory system. Symptoms may include one or more of the following: a tingling sensation in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and the throat, difficulty breathing, hives, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and even death. Symptoms typically appear anywhere from minutes to two hours after the person has eaten the food which he or she is allergic to.
There is no cure for food allergies; people who are allergic to a food must avoid that food completely. because it’s impossible to guess what is in a food, someone with a food allergy must carefully read ingredient labels for everything they eat.
People with food allergies also have to beware of cross contact. Cross contact happens when two foods mix so that each food has a bit of protein in it from the other. Using one knife both for the jelly and the peanut butter, for instance, would cause the jelly to have peanut protein in it, and people with an allergy to peanuts might have a reaction if they ate the jelly.
People who have severe reactions to a food are usually prescribed self-injectable epinephrine. Auto-injectors of epinephrine are called EpiPen® or Twinject™. Quick use of this medicine can be lifesaving.
Food intolerances differ from a food allergy, as the immune system is not involved when a person is intolerant to a food. the two most common intolerances are lactose intolerance and celiac disease.
Lactose Intolerance: Lactose intolerance occurs when an individual’s small intestine does not produce enough of the lactase enzyme. Therefore, affected individuals are not able to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in dairy products. the symptoms of lactose intolerance typically occur within 30 minutes to 2 hours after ingesting dairy products.
Celiac Disease: an adverse reaction to gluten is known as celiac disease or “celiac sprue.” this disease requires a lifelong restriction of gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and some oats. these grains and their by-products must be strictly avoided by people with celiac disease.
Celiac disease causes damage to the lining of the small intestine, which prevents the proper absorption of nutrients in foods, primarily B-vitamins. this can cause a person with celiac disease to become malnourished.
Celiac disease can cause many symptoms, including bloating and gas, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, itchy skin rash, mouth sores and migraines, to name a few. Symptoms may vary amongst affected individuals.