It’s Allergy Awareness Week
Here’s my ‘all you need to know about food allergies‘ guide
Despite the picture (which I think is both pretty amazing and disgusting) I am not talking the type of coughs and sneezes that spread diseases or the ones that are associated with hay fever or other airborne type allergies. This post is about food allergies. And when I say allergy, I mean a full-blown allergic response that results in very unpleasant and potentially dangerous symptoms. Food allergies can be fatal; there are no cures for them but with the right information, you can minimise the risk; being careful with what you eat, the food you order and what you buy at the supermarket (although this can be easier said than done) can make a massive difference.
So what exactly is a food allergy? Is it the same as being intolerant?
A food allergy occurs when your body reacts to something ‘foreign’. In most people this foreign substance is benign (such as a peanut) and is perceived as harmless so you can eat them safely without any adverse reactions. In someone who has a food allergy however, they are hypersensitive to the peanut and the body’s immune system reacts in a big way. Often, only a minute amount is needed to cause a reaction. Within minutes, due to this over-the-top immune response, the person can develop a rash, swell up and have difficulty breathing. This type of severe reaction is known as anaphylaxis. Food allergy is much more severe compared to food intolerance; they are quite different things.
An intolerance does not usually involve the immune system and although the symptoms can be unpleasant, the reaction is not as big, not so immediate and certainly not life threatening. A food intolerance occurs when you have difficulty digesting the food. By limiting the amount of food you are intolerant to or excluding this food for a while, people often find they can later tolerate small quantities again. Lactose, or dairy intolerance is very common; we can’t digest and absorb the milk sugar in dairy foods (lactose) so this sugar moves on through to the bowel where the bacteria that live there have a party. They feast on all that sugar, producing loads of gas. This causes bloating and pain and often diarrhoea results.
How do I know if I am allergic to something?
It may be that symptoms of an allergic reaction appear immediately, but it can be several hours before they present themselves. This can make it difficult to pinpoint the allergen (the food that triggers the immune reaction) if you had not experienced a reaction before. With food allergy we often find that on the first exposure to the allergen there are no symptoms at all. The second exposure might also produce only mild symptoms, but with each subsequent exposure the immune reaction gets bigger and more immediate. For someone who has been diagnosed with a food allergy, they will need to carry an ‘EpiPen’ with them – this means they can inject themselves with epinephrine aka adrenalin that can quickly reduce the symptoms hopefully before they become life threatening.
What are the stats?
Food allergies are a growing health concern in the UK; we are one of the top three countries in the world for the highest incident of allergy.
- It is estimated that 21 million people in the UK suffer from at least one type of allergy.
- ~10 people die every year from food-induced anaphylaxis.
- There are also about 1,500 asthma deaths, some of which might be triggered by food allergy.
- Food allergy is thought to affect 5-8% of young children and 3-4% of adults.
- The number of children admitted to hospital for food-related anaphylaxis has risen by 700% since 1990.
- This rise in allergies is thought to be due to changes in our diet (perhaps eating too much of certain foods) and the fact that many of us have become obsessed with cleanliness. Using antibacterial sprays on everything and antibacterial washing liquids means children’s immune systems are underexposed to germs.
What are the most common allergens?
You can be allergic to any food but only a handful are to blame for 90% of the allergic reactions to food.
- Cereals containing gluten such as wheat, rye, barley, oats or spelt
- Crustaceans (prawns, crabs, lobster, crayfish)
- Other nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio & macadamia nuts
- Celery & celeriac
- Sesame seeds
- Sulphur dioxide (used in dried fruit production – it keeps apricots bright orange; check out the toffee coloured organic, unsulphered apricots mmmm)
- Molluscs (clams, mussels, whelks, oysters, snails & squid)
These foods must be clearly labelled on all pre-packed foods when used as in ingredients but it is more tricky to know if food we order in restaurants is free from these allergens.
When can we develop an allergy?
Many allergies develop in childhood and the good news is that children will often grow out of them. Children often experience allergies to eggs, milk, wheat, nuts, seeds and fish. It is most likely to be due to gut immaturity; most will grow out of them by the time they are 5. When the gut is immature (as in children) it is very leaky. This means that it is easy for components of food to escape the gut and enter the bloodstream and therefore more likely to trigger an immune reaction. It is for this reason when weaning children from milk to solid food, we are recommended to wait until they are 6 months old now rather than 4 to give the gut a chance to develop further before we introduce solid food.
Children who are born with other allergic conditions, such as asthma, allergic rhinitis (runny nose) and allergic skin conditions like eczema, are more likely to develop a food allergy too. Adults with an allergy to peanuts, seafood, or fish rarely lose the allergy however. Allergies can also run in families. If you have parents or a sibling with an allergic condition, you are also at a higher risk of developing a food allergy or intolerance. So when introducing foods to children it can be a good idea to avoid the foods that the parent or sibling are allergic to until they are 12 months old but also seek medical advice. You should certainly not exclude major foods such as milk with out medical guidance.
If I am allergic to one food, am I more likely to develop other food allergies?
Yes, this is known as being atopic; you have a tendency to develop allergies. We don’t know what makes one person more sensitive to foods than others (apart from it running in families) but being atopic means you can react to a number of unrelated allergens, like peanuts and cats for example. Other people can react to different foods that contain either the same allergen or similar allergen which means they can cause similar allergic reactions. For example if someone is allergic to peanuts, they might react to other foods in the peanut family such as peas, lentils and beans.
So what can I do?
If you have an allergy it is important to train yourself to read labels on everything that comes into contact with your body – not just the food that you eat; some cosmetics may contain nut oils or extracts of fruit or vegetables.
Got a bit carried away again, sorry about that but more posts to follow this week……………I am also open to suggestions 🙂