The 8 most common food allergies in the United States are: milk, egg, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. These 8 foods account for about 90% of the food allergies in the U.S. It is estimated that between 2-4% of adults have food allergies and between 5-8% of infants and children have food allergies. There is currently no cure for food allergies although research is being done in order to try to find ways to desensitize food allergic individuals. As of now, the only thing that can be done to prevent an allergic reaction to a food is to completely avoid the food. Many individuals are so allergic to certain foods that just being around someone who touched or ate that food can set off an allergic reaction in the allergic individual. In addition, it is very important for food allergic individuals to be careful not to eat foods that may have been cross-contaminated with a food that they are allergic to, as being exposed to even a trace amount of the allergenic food can potentially be life-threatening in some individuals.
The symptoms of food allergies can span the spectrum from a mild itchy mouth to full blown anaphylaxis resulting in death. Each year approximately 150 people die from food allergies in the U.S. Another 25,000-35,000 individuals need emergency treatment in an urgent care center or an emergency room. Some of the common symptoms of a food allergy may include: itchy mouth, itchy throat, generalized itching of the skin, hives, swelling (lips, throat, eyes, etc.), closing of the throat, wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, abdominal cramps/pain, diarrhea, lightheadedness, drop in blood pressure, fainting, shock, and/or anaphylaxis.
Since food allergies can be so dramatic and dangerous, food manufacturers must label foods that are packaged. This is required by the “Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004.” The 8 major food allergens must be listed by their common or usual name. It is imperative for food allergic individuals to read the entire food label before consuming that product. Many labels will state that the product “contains” tree nuts, soy, etc., for example. Other labels may state that the product “may contain” peanuts, milk, etc., for example. They may also say “may contain traces” of peanuts, for example. Still other labels may state that the product was “made in the same facility” or “made on equipment” that also processes tree nuts, peanuts, milk, etc., for example. For the last example, the manufacturer is trying to convey that the equipment used to process one product that did not contain for example, peanuts was also used to produce another product that did contain peanuts. Thus, there may have been cross-contamination and trace amounts of peanuts could be present in the “non-peanut” product. In the examples above, any food could have been used, but for the purpose of an explanation, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, and soy have been used. It should also be noted that different countries around the world have their own guidelines regarding how, what is labeled, and “if” they label their foods.
The board certified allergists of Black & Kletz Allergy with 3 locations in the Washington, DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland metropolitan area diagnose food allergies in adults and children. We teach food allergic individuals how to prevent and treat exposures to foods that they are allergic to in our Washington, DC, McLean, VA (Tysons Corner, VA), and Manassas, VA office locations. The bottom line to the food allergic individual is to always read the entire label and if one is not sure if a product may contain the food that they are allergic to, they should contact the manufacturer, or just avoid the product to be safe. Not eating the product is always the safest decision. It is also extremely important that all food allergic individuals always carry a self-injectable epinephrine device (e.g., EpiPen, Adrenaclick) in case of an accidental exposure. If one uses the self-injectable epinephrine device, they are to always go immediately to the closest emergency room. If you suffer a life-threatening reaction or worse, you may need the advice of a personal injury attorney if the food was mislabeled or poorly labeled.
Thanks to Dr. Michael R. Kletz of Black & Kletz Allergy, for his insight into the dangers of food allergens.