About 11 million Americans have food allergies, a much higher number than even a few years ago, and the numbers are rising, according to Per Brandtzaeg, author of “Why We Develop Food Allergies.” “According to a recent study, the prevalence of peanut allergy—which accounts for the majority of emergency-room visits and deaths related to food allergies each year—doubled between 1997 and 2002.” An article in the November 5, 2007 issue of Newsweek states: “Allergies many kids outgrow—like those to eggs—seem to be lingering longer than they did in the past.” We know many people suffer from food allergies, but few of us know what is really going on biologically during an allergic reaction.
According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), during an allergic reaction, the body’s immune system mistakes a food item for a harmful substance and creates specific IgE antibodies as an attempt to protect the body. The next time that particular food item is ingested, the immune system releases chemicals and histamines in large quantities, which cause symptoms we associate with allergic reactions within the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and skin.
Allergic reactions can present themselves in several different ways, ranging from mild to severe and life-threatening. FAAN says symptoms can include a tingling sensation in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and throat, difficulty breathing, hives, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness.
In the most severe cases, anaphylaxis and death can occur. Symptoms usually appear anytime between a couple minutes and two hours after the allergen is consumed. In severe cases, epinephrine must be administered, either by an emergency department or an EpiPen or AnaGuard—two prescription epinephrine products often carried by those with known allergies. If the allergic reaction is mild or moderate, over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription antihistamines may be enough to stop the reaction. Many who have food allergies in their family keep an emergency kit on hand with the whole gamut of OTC and prescription-strength medications which would be helpful when someone has a reaction.
While these are ways to counteract allergic reactions, the only way to prevent them is to refrain from eating the food to which one has an allergy. Even when the allergen is known, it is sometimes impossible to avoid that particular food, especially when eating out.
Because food allergies are on the rise and so many people are severely allergic to ingredients in all different kinds of food, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) was passed and took effect on January 1, 2006. This legislation “mandates that food containing milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy must declare the food in plain language on the ingredient list.” This is not a failsafe, but it is definitely a huge leap forward in helping those with food allergies determine what ingredients are in each item they buy, reducing the number of potentially life-threatening allergic reactions.
There are two types of tests which determine if a person has food allergies, and if so, what those foods are. “Testing should be considered when symptoms such as hives, redness of the skin, itchiness, swelling of the lips or eyelids, throat tightness, wheezing, breathing trouble, coughing, vomiting or diarrhea occur shortly after eating,” writes Dr. Scott H. Sicherer in Food Allergy News.
IgE RAST tests are blood tests which measure the amount of IgE antibodies to specific foods found in the blood. Skin tests are also used to measure one’s allergic reactivity to specific allergens by “pricking the skin with a small needle or probe through a drop of the food extract, or by using a pricking device that has been pre-soaked in the extract.” Results of either test are then interpreted by an allergist familiar with a patient’s medical history because results are not necessarily straightforward.
The most common food allergies and number of Americans allergic to each are:
- EGGS 600,000
- DAIRY 900,000, not including lactose intolerance
- FISH 1.2 million
- PEANUTS 1.8 million
- TREE NUTS 1.8 million
- SHELLFISH 6 million
It is noteworthy that most children with food allergies simply outgrow them. According to kidshealth.org, “Of kids who are allergic to milk, about 80 percent will eventually outgrow the allergy. About two-thirds with allergies to eggs and about 80 percent with a wheat or soy allergy will outgrow those by the time they’re five years old. Other food allergies are harder to outgrow.”
One of the biggest struggles with childhood food allergies is the fact that, while parents can control what ingredients are used in food at home, it’s nearly impossible to keep a school cafeteria allergen-free. The aforementioned Newsweek article, called “Fear and Allergies In the Lunchroom,” told several stories of children whose schools must take special precautions daily—such as separating and inspecting the lunches of all students who eat at a table with food-allergic students—in order to ensure the well-being of allergic students.
Because this is such a serious and growing problem, FAAN offers free food-allergy information programs for elementary, intermediate and high schools in four states, including Illinois. The program serves to “guide and educate school staff and the community about the serious nature of food allergies and how school officials, classmates and families can provide the needed environment of support and assistance in protecting a child with food allergies.” Schools can be nominated for FAAN’s School Food Allergy Program (SFAP) by visiting foodallergy.org/school.html.
Because it is so important that people with food allergies eat food which has not been contaminated by allergens, some local eateries are devoted to providing “safe” food.
Apple’s Bakery has an entire division of gluten-free baked goods. Owner Mary Ardapple said “this is a major niche market that’s really growing.” In December 2006, Ardapple was approached and asked to consider creating a line of gluten-free food; it was launched in October of last year.
Ardapple is committed to producing quality baked goods for everyone and takes special precautions to make sure gluten-free cookies stay gluten-free. She converted old office space into a gluten- free zone, complete with separate equipment, ingredients and ovens used only to bake cookies in this line. Ardapple said she has to train her staff and salespeople so they understand the importance of allergy-free food production and know what precautions are necessary. For example, if they are working with food that contains gluten, they must thoroughly wash their hands and even change their aprons before entering the gluten-free room so as to avoid contamination.
Ardapple said one of the challenges that came with the introduction of her gluten-free line was learning how to communicate to the consumer. “Because Apple’s Bakery makes everything from scratch, we can communicate all ingredients to the consumer,” she said, which can put a person with food allergies at ease. Knowing every ingredient in food ordered out is something you can’t get everywhere.
Cyd’s Sensationals is another Peoria restaurant that serves several consumers with food allergies. While they do not have food specially made for people with particular allergies, they have many different options which make it easy to avoid certain ingredients. “Everything is sold ala carte,” said co-owner Emily Henrikson, “and there is enough flexibility in the menu to provide for people with food allergies.” If they cannot find pre-made items they want, however, Cyd’s has an order-driven kitchen which can make almost anything upon request.
Flat Top Grill is another restaurant which makes special accommodations for people with food allergies. The stir fry eatery asks all guests if they have any food allergies and gives instructions on which sauces to avoid at the stir fry bar based on their allergies. Guests with food allergies are also told to put a special marker in their bowls so the chefs know to cook their food in a separate wok.
It’s reassuring to know that as the number of people with food allergies rises, those in the food industry are addressing the issue and coming up with solutions. TPW