Did you know that about 1% of the adult population and 3% of children have a clinically proven food allergy? Beyond clinically proven food allergies, about one in three people suspect that they have some type of food allergy or food intolerance. For those with food allergies every day activities such as dining out, having dinner at a friend’s house or even preparing family meals can be a challenge. It’s critical that those people with food allergies take special precautions to avoid a reaction.
What is a food allergy and how does it compare to food intolerance? According to experts, an actual food allergy is an “abnormal response to a food that is triggered by the immune system.” Because a food intolerance can lead to similar symptoms as an allergy, it is often confused as one, though a food intolerance is not likely life-threatening. The main difference is food intolerance (such as being “lactose intolerant” for example), is not caused by the immune system.
In adults with food allergies, peanuts, walnuts, fish, eggs, and shellfish are the most likely culprits. Children with food allergies may be most sensitive to eggs, milk and peanuts. Soy and wheat are also common food allergens. Keep in mind that people are also be allergic to food items we wouldn’t suspect as being allergens, such as fruits or vegetables.
So if you have food allergies, what can you do to protect yourself? After you and your doctor have figured out which foods you are allergic to (keeping a food diary for a few weeks along with recording any time you experience symptoms may help), the most obvious and best course of action is to avoid those that cause an allergic reaction. This of course is easier said than done and typically requires reading over every food label thoroughly, including the ingredient list and reading the fine print on all food packages. Often times a food that you are allergic to may be hiding in a product when you least expect it; thus being overly cautious is always the safest bet. Many products will contain a warning on a food label that reads, “This product was produced in a plant with soy or peanut products” for example so always keep your eyes peeled for any type of safety warning.
For some people who are severely allergic to certain food items, dining at a restaurant can be out of the question. Even shared cooking equipment, utensils or a chef’s hands can be contaminated with a trace of the allergen and cause a reaction, so asking your server a lot of questions regarding both ingredients and preparation is a must. Always let your server know the list of foods you are allergic to and ask them to please inform the chef who will be preparing your meal. This way the culinary team can guide you in which menu items to avoid as well as take special precautions while preparing your dish. If you are trying a new restaurant for the first time, it never hurts to call ahead of time and let them know what food items you are allergic to and get their feedback as to whether or not it’s a “safe” place for you to dine.
Even “being careful” isn’t always a sure thing. After all, it’s easy to make a mistake or misread a food label. Those with serious food allergies must often work with their doctor and come up with a plan of preparation which may include wearing medical alert bracelets or necklaces and carrying a supply of epinephrine. These people are taught ahead of time how to self-administer a shot of epinephrine if the situation arises and typically their close ones are informed of what to do in case of an emergency. Those with food allergies are also taught to never take a reaction lightly. Even a reaction that feels “minor” at the start can quickly escalate into a serious (and sometimes fatal) emergency, and so it’s best to be prepared and to get to an emergency room as soon as possible if need be.
If adults with food allergies can make a mistake, it’s even more likely that a child can accidentally ingest a food that they are allergic to. Thus extra special precautions need to be made when dealing with child food allergies. Any caregiver including school faculty, parents of friends, neighbors and family members need to be aware of all known food allergies, how to avoid those food containing items as well as what to do in case of an emergency. It’s important to speak to a doctor or specialist to help you devise a solid plan of action to protect your child and even to teach them to be aware and how to avoid those foods they are sensitive to.
*Information derived from webmd.com