Food allergies affect approximately 2 percent of adults and 4 to 8 percent of children in the United States. Over the last decade, the number of young people with food allergies has increased. Food allergies can be serious and life-threatening; severe reactions kill 100 to 200 Americans per year. The risk of accidental exposure to foods can be reduced if physicians, parents, child care providers, and teachers work to minimize risks and provide a safe environment for children with food allergies. This publication provides general information and guidelines to manage food allergies at home, schools, day care centers, and camps.
A food allergy is an immune system response. It occurs when the body mistakes a food ingredient, usually a protein (allergen), as harmful and creates a defense system (antibodies) to destroy it. Food allergy symptoms develop when the antibodies are battling the “invading” food.
Food intolerance is a digestive system response rather than an immune system response. It occurs when something in a food irritates a person’s digestive system or when a person is unable to properly digest or break down the food. Common food intolerances include lactose and gluten.
An allergy is more serious than a food intolerance (which is usually not life-threatening and usually does not impair the person’s daily activities). The only way to know for sure if you or your child has a food allergy or food intolerance is to have the symptoms evaluated by a board-certified allergist.
Eight common food allergens are responsible for 90 percent of all allergic reactions in the United States. These are:
Allergies develop within the first one to two years of life. For reasons not entirely understood, research has shown that many food allergies are lost or outgrown over time. Because of this, some allergies tend to be more common among children, while others are more common among adults.
Adapted from The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network website.
Although new treatments for some food allergies show promise, currently, there is no cure. Strict avoidance (do not taste, smell, or touch it) is critical in preventing a reaction. For some people, just one bite can bring on a severe reaction (anaphylaxis) that can be fatal without appropriate medical intervention.
The U.S. Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires food labels to clearly identify all allergen ingredients by listing food allergens in “plain language.” This means that if a food contains one of the eight major food allergens or any ingredient that contains the protein derived from any of these eight foods, the label must be written in language that is easy to understand. For example, if whey, a product derived from milk, is used as a food ingredient, then the food label must include the word “milk” next to the ingredient. This plain-language declaration has made it easier for parents, children, and caregivers to read a food label and recognize if one of the eight allergens is present and must be avoided.
Food manufacturers can label food products that are made with an ingredient that is a major food allergen in one of two ways (see Figure 1 below).
|Ingredients: Enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, high fructose corn syrup, whey (milk), eggs, vanilla, natural and artificial flavoring, salt, leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), lecithin (soy), mono- and diglycerides.||OR||Ingredients: Enriched flour (flour, malted barley, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, high fructose corn syrup, whey, eggs, vanilla, natural and artificial flavoring, salt, leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), lecithin, mono- and diglycerides.|
Contains: Wheat, Milk, Eggs, and Soy.
|Figure 1. Two ways food manufacturers can label food products.|
Food allergies are considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in employment and education in agencies, programs, and services that receive federal money. For example, a public school that receives federal funding cannot discriminate against children with food allergies.
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. http://foodallergy.org.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food Allergies Labeling.www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/FoodAllergensLabeling/default.htm.
Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, reprint, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; M. Ray McKinnie, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State University, Petersburg.
August 24, 2010