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The Big 8 Food Allergens

Today I talk about food allergies, and the ones that most people have.

Continuing with my theme of food safety as I wrap up my first rotation as an intern, today I am talking about food allergens, and where to find them.

Food allergens are ingredients in food that trigger allergies.  Allergies (at least in terms of food) themselves are an over-reaction to something, usually a protein, in the food.  Symptoms can vary from person to person.  Less severe ones include hives and an odd taste in the mouth.  More severe symptoms include choking, changes in pulse, and a difficulty in breathing or swallowing.

So how can you determine if you have an allergy?  Usually, a doctor will do a skin prick test, or blood test to see if you have a reaction.  Other times, you are less fortunate, and eating the food is what tells you that you have an allergy.

You can treat minor allergies with topical skin cream and allergy medications.  Other times, avoidance is the best way to deal with allergies (especially if you are allergic to gluten, like in Celiac disease).  Other times, an epinephrine shot or hospital stay is the best treatment.

That said, I would like to go over what the Big 8 Allergies are, and where they’re found.  The Big 8 are responsible for 90% of allergies in the United States, and is required to be put on food labels, so they are a pretty big deal.

Wheat:  Wheat is that thing you can find pretty much every where.  It’s in bread, pasta, cereal, and most other grain products you can find.  The way you can avoid this is to read food labels if you are not sure if a product is wheat free.  It will also tell you if the food was made in places that handle wheat.

Soy:  Soy is found in a lot of meat substitutes, bean sprouts, and other types of products.  Again, reading the label is beneficial.  If you are planning on becoming vegetarian or vegan and have a soy allergy, I would suggest finding alternatives that do not use soy, such as seitan.  However, do not eat seitan if you have Celiac, since it is made from gluten, the same protein responsible for wheat allergies.

Fish:  This is that animal that swims in the water.  This is found usually in a whole or portioned out form.  Common ones include tuna, salmon, cod, and anything with fins and swims.  This one is somewhat easy to avoid:  just don’t eat fish.  Often, if you are unaware of the presence of an allergen, its because wherever you went had issues with cross contamination.

Shellfish:  Similar to fish, this one is also somewhat easy to avoid.  Just don’t eat things like shrimp, crab, or lobster.  Shellfish are sea creatures that have hard shells, called exoskeletons.  Again, often if this is in something you weren’t aware of in the food, it was due to cross contamination.  Be warned though, because there are chitin supplements available, and those might use shellfish shells.  Read labels to make sure its right for you.

Milk:  This is a sneaky one.  Milk can be avoided in whole foods, like fresh milk, cheese, or yogurt.  However, milk can be added to a variety of baked goods.  Again, reading labels can save you here because you can see if milk is added to something.  Also:  milk allergies are different from an intolerance.   An allergy is a response to the protein casein, which has symptoms like hives, swelling, and trouble breathing, and happens within moments of exposure.  An intolerance is a response to lactose, which is a sugar that might not be broken down in some people.  This is usually evident in about half an hour after consumption, and has symptoms like gas and diarrhea.

Eggs:  Again, this is another sneaky ingredient.  While eating a whole egg can trigger an allergy, this is also present in a variety of baked goods as well.  Eggs are also present in some vaccines, such as the flu shot.  The good news is that there are shots available for those older than 18, so you can get all the benefit from the vaccine without triggering an allergy.

Peanut:  This is a mix between sneaky and evident.  It’s in foods like peanut butter, snacks, and other products like that.  However, it can also be sneaky.  If you read the labels for the allergens (which you should do if you or someone you care about has an allergy), sometimes it will say something about being processed in a facility with peanuts.  This means that because of some equipment or environmental contamination, there might be some particles in the food.

Tree nuts:  This is similar to peanuts.  However, this is a broad set of nuts, which includes almonds, walnuts, cashews, and hazelnut/filberts.  These are in a variety of foods as well, including trail mix, candy, and sandwich spreads. This will often appear on a label as well, often it will say that the facility processed other allergens.

When you have an allergy, food can be scary.  Thanks to improved label design, knowledge about ingredients is more transparent between food service, manufacturing, and the consumers.  The take away message I want with this blog post is to empower consumers, and encourage you all to read the labels.

What is your experience with food allergies?  Any comments, questions, or discussion on this topic is welcome!

By The Nutrition Punk

I am a dietitian living in Portland, Oregon. I write about a variety of nutrition and heath topics, with the goal of improving people's understanding of food and nutrition so they may be empowered against all the misinformation that is out there.

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