Food allergies are no minor concern – for many, they are dangerous as the slightest trace amount of an allergen can cause serious harm and threaten one’s life. In Canada, about 7% of the population (2.5 million people) has self-reported a food allergy. In most western countries, physician-diagnosed food allergies are estimated to have a prevalence of 5-6% among children and 3-4% among adults. A growing public health concern, it’s unclear whether food allergies themselves are on the rise or if awareness is just increasing. What’s clear, however, is that a significant number of Canadians are affected by food allergies.
Contrary to popular belief, a food allergy can develop at any age and the following reaction may range from a food sensitivity at one end, to an anaphylactic reaction at the other end. While food allergens vary vastly depending on the individual, there are some that are more common than others. Before I list them, however, I would like you to name as many as you are able to. How many did you get? Which food allergen do you believe is the most common?
Health Canada has identified ten priority food allergens which account for more than 90% of all food allergic reactions. These food allergens include: eggs, milk, mustard, peanuts, seafood (fish, crustaceans and shellfish), sesame, soy, sulphites, tree nuts, and wheat. Moreover, despite the common belief that peanuts are the most common food allergen, this food allergy actually ranks behind milk and egg allergies among children and milk, egg, and seafood allergies among adults.
An allergic reaction takes place when the immune system of an individual mistakenly identifies a food protein as being harmful. In response to such exposure, the body’s immune system releases antibodies and histamines, which can cause a reaction in the:
- Respiratory System
- Affects breathing
- Results in coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain/tightness, throat tightness, hoarse voice, nasal congestion and/or, trouble swallowing
- Gastrointestinal Tract
- Affects the stomach
- Results in nausea, pain/cramps, vomiting, and/or diarrhea
- Results in hives, swelling (face, lips, tongue), itching, warmth, redness, and/or rash
- Cardiovascular System
- Affects the heart
- Results in pale/blue colour, weak pulse, passing out, dizzy/lightheaded, and/or shock
- Other Reactions: anxiety, headache, uterine cramps, metallic taste
At the most extreme end, severe food allergies can result in an anaphylactic reaction, whereby the body’s immune system has a strong reaction to a food allergen and many cause death.
Although some food allergies can be outgrown, for instance, most egg allergies are outgrown in children by the age of 5 years, many are not and could persist throughout one’s lifespan. Unfortunately, there is no cure for food allergies either. At this point in time, all we can and must do is practice avoidance of allergenic foods and manage our allergic responses. As such, this means that food labels must share information regarding allergenic foods (according to guidelines set by Health Canada) and consumers must pay attention to them in order to protect their health and the health of others. If individuals are at risk of anaphylaxis, an EpiPen carrying life-saving epinephrine medication (or Allerject carrying adrenaline) should be used as well.