What is Food Allergy?

Photo Credit: northshorekids.com

Photo Credit: northshorekids.com

Food allergy is a reaction of the body’s immune system to something in a food or an ingredient in a food-usually a protein. It can be a serious condition and should be diagnosed by a board-certified allergist.

How many people have the food allergy?
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 5 million Americans, (5 to 8% of children and 1 to 2% of adults) have a true food allergy. Many people with any type of food sensitivity have food intolerances. Fewer people have true food allergy involving the immune system.

Which foods trigger allergic reactions?
There are eight major food allergens, including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts and almonds), soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. These eight foods are the most common food allergens and cause more than 90 percent of all food allergic reactions. Among children, allergy to dairy and eggs are most common.

Do food additives cause allergic reactions?
No. Misconceptions abound regarding allergies to food additives. Many of these additives, including aspartame, monosodium glutamate and several food dyes have been studied extensively. Although sensitivities such as digestive problems or other temporary, localized reactions that do not involve the immune system have been associated with food additives, scientific evidence shows that food additives do not cause allergic reactions.

Are oils derived from foods that can cause food allergy, such as peanut oil, also allergenic? 
Not usually. Most commercial oils such as peanut oil are highly refined (hot solvent extracted), which removes the protein from the product. These types of oil are most commonly used in commercial food preparation. Since it is protein in allergenic foods that cause food allergy, highly refined oils are nonallergenic. Research has shown that individuals with severe peanut allergy have not had reactions to heat processed oils. However, people with food allergy should avoid “gourmet” or cold-pressed oils because they may contain allergenic proteins, which provide the flavor to the oil. For the same reason, oils that have been used to fry potentially allergenic foods should be avoided by allergic individuals.

Are peanut allergies increasing?
Research indicates that reported allergies are increasing. Peanut allergies are not a new phenomena; however, it is difficult to determine if the increased reports of food allergies in general and peanut allergy in particular are due to actual increases in incidence or a result of increased awareness among consumers and health professionals.

What are the symptoms of food allergy?
Symptoms of food allergy vary among individuals. Symptoms can also be different in the same person at different exposures to the same allergen. Common symptoms of food allergy include skin irritations (rashes, hives, and eczema), gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, diarrhea, vomiting), sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath. Some people experience a more severe reaction called anaphylaxis, which is a rare but potentially fatal condition in which several different parts of the body experience allergic reactions. Symptoms may include itching, hives, swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing, lower blood pressure and unconsciousness. Anaphylactic reactions usually happen rapidly and can be life threatening. Immediate medical attention is necessary when anaphylaxis occurs. Emergency treatment usually includes an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) to open up the airway and blood vessels.

Is there a cure for food allergies?
Unfortunately, the only “cure” for food allergy, at present, is strict dietary avoidance of the allergen. However, scientists specializing in food allergy are addressing this question. Because of the severity of reactions in peanut allergy, scientists are working on developing a vaccine for this allergen first. They hope to help desensitize those with peanut allergy, and substantially decrease the severity of reactions. It should be noted that these experiments, which are being conducted on animals, are in the beginning phases. If the animal studies are successful, human trials may begin within three to four years.

What is the best way to manage food allergic children in schools?
The best way to deal with an allergic child in school is with education and management for all parties involved (parents, teachers and school administrators). Education and awareness of what a food allergy is, how to prevent a reaction and what to do in case an allergic reaction occurs are keys to successfully managing allergy in schools. Since most children do not outgrow peanut allergies, this approach will help the child learn techniques on how to cope in everyday situations that will be carried throughout life. The Food Allergy Network offers educational programs and materials aimed at food allergy education and management.

Should allergenic foods be banned from schools?
Banning allergenic foods from schools is not practical or effective. Allergenic food bans are counterproductive because they diminish the need to teach children with allergies to take care of themselves. If a school instituted a ban on food allergens, it would be very difficult to enforce. Bans do not render an allergic child’s environment absolutely safe. A ban in schools may create a false sense of security for the allergic child and school staff, which can potentially lead to serious injury or death. Better solutions include establishing lunch tables that are free of allergenic foods and prohibiting lunch swapping among students, for example.

The Food Allergy Network has a comprehensive School Food Allergy Program and other resources designed to educate and assist school personnel and parents with the effective management of children with food allergy.

Where can I go for more information? Many resources are available to obtain further information about food allergy. They include the Food Allergy Network (FAN), the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) and others.

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