What is a food allergy?
A food allergy is an immune system response to an otherwise
harmless food or food component, usually a protein. The body reacts
by flooding the system with histamines and other chemicals to fight
off what is perceived as an invader in the body. A reaction to a
food that does not involve the immune system is called a food intolerance
or sensitivity (for example: lactose intolerance).
Food allergies are rare. Between 1 and 2%
of American adults have a food allergy, according to food allergy
experts. These can be caused by more than 170 foods. The most common
and severe food allergies are caused by milk, eggs, peanuts, walnuts,
almonds, cashews, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy.
Experts estimate that as many as 5 to 8%
of American children may have a food allergy. The most common food
allergies among children are milk and egg. Fortunately, children
outgrow most food allergies. However, allergies to peanuts, tree
nuts, fish and shellfish usually are lifelong.
It is important to consult a board-certified
allergist if you suspect you have a food allergy. Allergists can
accurately diagnose the allergy and prescribe medication for its
Food allergy reactions
Most allergy sufferers experience
fairly mild reactions to a food allergen. Symptoms can include varying
degrees of hives, swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing and
vomiting. A small number of food allergy sufferers are susceptible
to severe and potentially fatal anaphylactic shock.
Anaphylaxis can constrict the airways in
the lungs, severely lower blood pressure, and swell the tongue or
throat, among other symptoms. Anaphylaxis is rare, but can be fatal
if not treated immediately. It can be caused by foods, insect stings
The Centers for Disease Control reports 10 deaths in 1998 (the last
year for which data is available) due to food allergies. In comparison,
46 people died in 1998 from hornet, wasp, or bee stings.
Food allergy treatments
There is currently no treatment to prevent a food allergy reaction
the only certain way to prevent a reaction is strict avoidance.
To this end, individuals with food allergies must diligently read
food labels. When eating food prepared by others (i.e. at a friendâs
house or in a restaurant) food allergy sufferers must ask about
the ingredients and preparation of the food before eating.
Food allergy sufferers should always carry
self-injectable epinephrine in the event that a reaction does occur.
Immediate injection of epinephrine can temporarily arrest symptoms
until full medical treatment is available. In the event of a reaction,
the sufferer should seek medical attention immediately even
if a dosage of epinephrine appears to have halted the attack.
The real danger for peanut allergy sufferers appears to be accidental
consumption of peanut products, although mild reactions may occur
if peanuts come into contact with the skin.
Approximately one-half of one percent of
the American population has an allergy to peanuts. Only one-tenth
of one percent of the American population is believed to be subject
to a life-threatening peanut allergy. For the remainder of the population,
peanuts and peanut butter continue to be a popular, nutritious and
The U.S. peanut industry does not want anyone to ever be harmed
by our product. That is why we support full disclosure labeling
on food products and sponsor training programs for peanut product
Because there is currently no "cure"
to eliminate the peanut allergy, the U.S. peanut industry also helps
fund university research which already has identified the proteins
responsible for the allergic reaction. Researchers are now attempting
to eliminate these proteins from peanuts altogether. Human trials
also have begun on a peanut allergy vaccine to mitigate the severity
of the reaction.
Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network
Allergy Research and Resource Program
Food Information Council Foundation