November 29, 2011

Food Allergies

What You Need to Know

Each year, millions of Americans have allergic reactions to food. Although most food allergies cause relatively mild and minor symptoms, some food allergies can cause severe reactions, and may even be life-threatening. There is no cure for food allergies. Strict avoidance of food allergens — and early recognition and management of allergic reactions to food — are important measures to prevent serious health consequences.

What Are Major Food Allergens?

While more than 160 foods can cause allergic reactions in people with food allergies, the new law identifies the eight most common allergenic foods. These foods account for 90 percent of food allergic reactions, and are the food sources from which many other ingredients are derived.

The eight foods identified by the law are:
1. Milk
2. Eggs
3. Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
4. Crustacean shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp)
5. Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
6. Peanuts
7. Wheat
8. Soybeans

These eight foods, and any ingredient that contains protein derived from one or more of them, are designated as “major food allergens” by the new law.

How Major Food Allergens Are Listed

The new law requires that food labels identify the food source of all major food allergens. Unless the food source of a major food allergen is part of the ingredient’s common or usual name (or is already identified in the ingredient list), it must be included in one of two ways.

The name of the food source of a major food allergen must appear:
1. In parentheses following the name of the ingredient.
Examples: “lecithin (soy),” “flour (wheat),” and “whey (milk)”
— OR —
2. Immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a
“contains” statement.
Example: “Contains Wheat, Milk, and Soy.”

What to Do If Symptoms Occur

The appearance of symptoms (see Know the Symptoms at right) after eating food may be a sign of a food allergy. The food(s) that caused these symptoms should be avoided, and the affected person, should contact a doctor or health care provider for appropriate testing and evaluation.

• Persons found to have a food allergy should be taught to read labels and avoid the offending foods. They should also be taught, in case of accidental ingestion, to recognize the early symptoms of an allergic reaction, and be properly educated on — and armed with — appropriate treatment measures.

• Persons with a known food allergy who begin experiencing symptoms while, or after, eating a food should initiate treatment immediately, and go to a nearby emergency room if symptoms progress.

Know the Symptoms

Symptoms of food allergies typically appear from within a few minutes to two hours after a person has eaten the food to which he or she is allergic.

Allergic reactions can include:

• Hives
• Flushed skin or rash
• Tingling or itchy sensation in the mouth
• Face, tongue, or lip swelling
• Vomiting and/or diarrhea
• Abdominal cramps
• Coughing or wheezing
• Dizziness and/or lightheadedness
• Swelling of the throat and vocal cords
• Difficulty breathing
• Loss of consciousness

About Other Allergens

Persons may still be allergic to — and have serious reactions to — foods other than the eight foods identified by the new law. So, always be sure to read the food label’s ingredient list carefully to avoid the food allergens in question.

What does an allergy mean?

allergyAn allergy refers to an exaggerated reaction by our immune system in response to bodily contact with certain foreign substances. It is exaggerated because these foreign substances are usually seen by the body as harmless and no response occurs in non- allergic people. Allergic people’s bodies recognize the foreign substance and one part of the immune system is turned on. Allergy-producing substances are called “allergens.” Examples of allergens include pollens, dust mite, molds, danders, and foods. To understand the language of allergy it is important to remember that allergens are substances that are foreign to the body and can cause an allergic reaction in certain people.

When an allergen comes in contact with the body, it causes the immune system to develop an allergic reaction in persons who are allergic to it. When you inappropriately react to allergens that are normally harmless to other people, you are having an allergic reaction and can be referred to as allergic or atopic. Therefore, people who are prone to allergies are said to be allergic or “atopic.”

Austrian pediatrician Clemens Pirquet (1874-1929) first used the term allergy. He referred to both immunity that was beneficial and to the harmful hypersensitivity as “allergy.” The word allergy is derived from the Greek words “allos,” meaning different or changed and “ergos,” meaning work or action. Allergy roughly refers to an “altered reaction.” The word allergy was first used in 1905 to describe the adverse reactions of children who were given repeated shots of horse serum to fight infection. The following year, the term allergy was proposed to explain this unexpected “changed reactivity.”