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Eating Allergen-Free: A Look Into Common Food Allergens

People can be allergic to many things, from dust to grass to dogs to bee stings. But while many allergens are outdoors, one type of allergen may be as close as your kitchen. Millions of people in America are allergic to one or more foods, and these allergies can have effects ranging from discomfort to death. While allergic reactions can usually be treated or avoided, the allergy itself cannot be cured.

What Are the Most Common Food Allergies?

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), passed in 2004, mandated that eight common allergens be disclosed on food labels, as these foods together make up 90% of all food allergies. These are:

  1. Milk
  2. Eggs
  3. Fish
  4. Shellfish
  5. Tree nuts
  6. Peanuts
  7. Wheat
  8. Soybeans

A 2021 law added one more member to that list: sesame.

Allergen Labeling

Under the FALCPA, all packaged foods containing a major allergen must be clearly labeled as such. This includes the allergens themselves as well as ingredients derived from one of the major allergens. Specific foods within a category must also be noted; for instance, if a product contains shrimp, the label must say that it contains shellfish and note that the specific shellfish is shrimp. The FDA enforces this law.

How Major Food Allergens Are Listed

Each allergen must be noted on the product label using the name it has on the list of major allergens. For example, if a product contains butter, the label should indicate that it contains milk; milk is the major allergen. Manufacturers have two options for how to do this. The first option is to label allergens in the ingredients list using parentheses. With this approach, a product containing butter would include "butter (milk)" in its ingredients. The second option is just to provide a list of allergens after the ingredients list. If the manufacturer chooses this method for a product with butter in it, after the ingredients list would be this note: "Contains Milk."

Know the Symptoms of Food Allergies

If someone consumes a food that they are allergic to, symptoms may include:

  • Itching or tingling in the mouth
  • Hives
  • Swelling of the tongue, lips, face, or throat
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness

The severity of these symptoms can vary depending on the allergen and the quantity of the allergen consumed. The worst cases can lead to anaphylactic shock.

Food Allergies Can Be Life-Threatening

Anaphylactic shock is a life-threatening allergic reaction that requires emergency medical attention. Symptoms include a weak pulse, suddenly low blood pressure, clammy skin, and unconsciousness. Early signs that a person might be going into anaphylactic shock include difficulty breathing, swelling of the face, and turning blue or white. Without prompt action, anaphylactic shock can lead to death.

What to Do if Symptoms Occur

If someone has an allergic reaction to a food, it's important to monitor the severity of the reaction. If it's minor, taking an antihistamine might be all that's needed, but more serious symptoms will require emergency treatment. If you aren't aware that you have a food allergy but you have an allergic reaction after eating, avoid eating that food until you can see a doctor.

Reporting Adverse Reactions and Labeling Concerns

The most important thing that a person with a food allergy can do to stay healthy is to pay close attention to what they eat. Food labels can help you to know what you're eating, but not if the label isn't accurate or clear. If you have an allergic reaction after eating something that did not clearly note the allergen on its label, keep the package and report it to the FDA by calling 1-888-SAFEFOOD.

Additional Resources

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