What is a food allergy (FA)?

Food allergies have become more common in the past decade. Only a small amount of foods are the cause of 90 percent of allergic food reactions.

Sesame seeds.
Photo: Pixabay/SEMSEMS.

Food allergies (FAs) are very common and have shown in recent years to have increased in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies affect over 6% of adults and about 6% of children 17 or younger.  

Food Allergy Research and Education reports medical claims to treat food allergy reactions increased 380% between 2007 and 2016. A 2012 study published in JAMA Pediatrics magazine showed that families in the United States spend nearly $25 billion annually on food allergy treatments and medications, including anaphylactic reactions.

Although any food has the ability to cause an allergy, only a handful of foods cause nearly 90 percent of all food allergies. The substance that causes an allergic reaction in foods or drinks is called an "allergen." When your immune system has a reaction to an allergen, inflammation and irritation symptoms are the result. The nine most common food allergens are:

  1. Fish.
  2. Shellfish.
  3. Eggs.
  4. Milk.
  5. Tree nuts (including hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts).
  6. Peanuts.
  7. Soy.
  8. Wheat.
  9. Sesame.

Sesame was added to the list of the most common allergens with the adoption of the FASTER Act in January 2023. This means it is now required to be listed in plain language on food labels, like the rest of the top common major allergens.

A food allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs in a person after eating or even touching a certain food. In some cases, simply being in the same room or building that is the source of the allergen can cause a reaction. Many people who have food allergies will also avoid food that has been made on the same equipment as their allergen.

Food allergy symptomatic reactions can range from small to severe. Common symptoms can include:

  • Digestive problems (diarrhea, vomiting, pain in the abdomen).
  • Swollen airways (nasal congestion, trouble breathing, wheezing, hoarse voice, trouble swallowing).
  • Itching (mouth, lips or tongue).
  • Hives or eczema.
  • Anaphylaxis* (seek medical treatment immediately).

*Anaphylaxis is very serious. It can cause a coma or death if not treated immediately by a medical professional. Symptoms can include rapid increase in pulse rate, trouble breathing, a feeling of having a lump in your throat, dizziness, drop in blood pressure or fainting.

Food allergies should not be confused with food intolerance. Food allergies affect the immune system and can be very serious. Food intolerance has no connection to an individual’s immune system and the symptoms are generally limited to the digestive system.

If you suspect food allergies for you or someone you care for, Michigan State University Extension suggests having a conversation with your medical provider to get a medical diagnosis. If diagnosed with a food allergy, inform schools, employers, restaurants, and family members. Continue to educate yourself on food allergies and take precautions when dining out or eating. Have regular medical checkups and follow your doctor’s orders.

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