The most common food allergies to keep in mind

More than 50 million Americans are affected by food allergies and children are particularly prone to them. You probably know a few people, who belong to this group if you aren’t a sufferer yourself. Here is a short introduction to the most common types to watch out for, as well as tips on handling product labels.

What causes food allergies?

An allergy is nothing more than a little “glitch” of the immune system. While it normally keeps us healthy by fighting off dangerous substances, some foods might trigger the protective reaction and cause it to overreact in response to a perfectly safe ingredient.

In the extreme case, exposure to an allergen might lead to a life-threatening condition called anaphylactic shock, or anaphylaxis. Most recognize difficulties with breathing, swelling and dizziness as the main symptoms; these are caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

Fortunately, almost 90% of all food allergies are caused by a relatively short list of ingredients. Here are “the big eight” allergens to take into account.

1. Peanuts

Peanut allergy takes the first place in terms of prevalence.

2. Shellfish

Oysters and mussels, shrimps and scallops, clams and lobsters – all of these fine mollusks tie for the second place on the list of the big eight.

3. Dairy/Milk

Milk proteins, like lactose, are another well-known sensitive ingredient and cow milk is the main offender. It is most common among children: with 2-3 percent of little ones under the age of three have a milk allergy, though most outgrow it later on.

4. Eggs

Egg allergy is similarly prevalent among children, who react to the proteins in the egg whites or the egg yolk.

5. Tree nuts

Almonds, cashews, pecans and pistachios are all examples of tree nuts. Since they grow differently, some people with a tree nut allergy can still eat peanuts.

6. Wheat

People with a wheat allergy can eat bread and pastry, as long as it is made from a different grain. Though it might seem confusingly similar, celiac disease is not a gluten allergy, but rather an autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine and requires a special gluten-free diet.

7. Fish

Compared to other ingredients on this list, fish is comparatively easier to avoid. You might even be able to enjoy other seafood, like shellfish, even if you have to avoid tuna, cod or salmon.

8. Soy

Soy allergy concludes this list: these beans are not only a part of soy milk and tofu; many other products contain it as well.

What does the label “May contain traces of…” mean?

It usually indicates that this food was processed or packaged in the same facility, or even using the same equipment. This creates potential for cross-contamination. The problem is that this label is not specific enough: it might be high risk or it may have no traces of the said allergen at all. However, this warning is particularly important for people with severe allergies.

Hidden allergens and how to avoid them

Processed foods are another tricky shopping item for an allergy sufferer. Improved labeling laws make it easier to track down exactly what is in the products lining the supermarket shelves. However, this also often means that you have to read these very closely. You might be surprised how often you can find peanuts, eggs, soy or milk on the list.

So speak with your guests, watch out for the big eight, and scrutinize the labels. This way, no food allergy will get in the way of a pleasant dinner.


Photo by Kelly Sikkema

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