10 Important Things to Know About Food Allergies

We're debunking the most common misconceptions and telling you the need-to-know facts about food allergies.

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What You Need to Know About Food Allergies

It is estimated that 32 million Americans suffer from food allergies, including 5.6 million kids under the age of 18. However, a lot of the information about food allergies may seem conflicting. We are setting the record straight by debunking 10 of the most common misconceptions and telling you the most important facts about food allergies.

Food Allergies Can Develop at Any Age

Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD registered dietitian and consultant for National Peanut Board, says: "While most diagnoses happen during childhood, some people develop food allergies as adults. In fact, one recent study suggested that more than 10% of adults may have food allergies." Coleman Collins explains that, in adults, shellfish is the most common food allergy, but any food can cause a food allergy reaction.

Even a Little Bit of Food Can Hurt

According to the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) website, "For someone with a food allergy, even a trace of the problem food can trigger a severe reaction." This is why it’s essential to avoid eating the problem food itself, but it’s also important to avoid cross-contact, which happens when protein from the problem food is accidentally transferred to another food. For example, when a hamburger is cooked on the same surface as a cheeseburger, or croutons are removed from a premade salad, the hamburger or salad that would otherwise be safe are now dangerous to a person with allergies to milk and wheat, respectively.

9 Foods Cause More Than 90% of Food Allergy Reactions in the U.S.

Peanuts, beans that grow underground, and tree nuts, which typically have hard shells and grown on trees, are foods that commonly cause allergies, but they aren’t the only ones. Nine foods — milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, soybean and sesame — cause more than 90% of food allergy reactions in the U.S. However, according to FARE, "Allergies have been reported to more than 170 foods, and almost any food can cause a potentially life-threatening reaction."

Some Children Will Outgrow Their Food Allergies

"As many as 80% of children with milk allergies, 60% to 70% of those with egg allergies, and 20% with a peanut allergy will naturally grow out of their allergy," explains Coleman Collins. "Treatments like oral immunotherapy can also help those with existing peanut allergies by reducing their risk of severe reactions, but this isn’t a cure and those individuals still have to avoid regularly eating peanut foods."

Avoiding Allergenic Foods During Pregnancy or Breastfeeding Doesn’t Prevent Food Allergies in Children

"While there is ongoing research about how changing a mother’s diet may influence the development of food allergies, so far the evidence doesn’t support this," says Coleman Collins. "In fact, the latest guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics clearly state that mothers do not need to change their diet to prevent allergies, unless they have a food allergy themselves."

Potentially Allergenic Foods Should Be Introduced at About 6 Months

Potentially allergenic foods, especially peanut foods and eggs, should be introduced to babies alongside other complementary foods at about 6 months of age once a couple of other foods have been successfully introduced. According to Coleman Collins: "Research shows that early introduction of allergens can reduce the risk of food allergies in all babies, which is why this advice was included in the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but especially those who may have higher risk (such as those with severe eczema or existing allergies). Parents can discuss when to introduce allergens to their baby based on their specific risk, but in most cases it’s not necessary to see a doctor first."

Food Allergies Are NOT the Same As Food Intolerances

According to FARE: "Food allergy reactions involve the immune system attacking a food allergen, a normally harmless food protein, as though it were an invading germ or parasite. This immune system overaction can cause serious illness and even death." In contrast, FARE explains that food intolerances do not involve the immune system and are typically related to digestion. While they can cause great discomfort, food intolerances are not deadly. In addition, when you do have an intolerance, there is a tolerable threshold your body can handle.

All Ingredients That Can Cause Allergies May Not Be Labeled on Packaged Foods

According to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), the eight most common allergens — milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and crustacean shellfish — must be labeled in plain language on most packaged foods sold in the U.S. FARE explains, "Other ingredients, like sesame, the ninth most common food allergen, aren’t always named on labels." In addition, many ingredients known to cause allergic reactions can hide in packaged foods under labels like "spices" or "natural flavors."

When a Food Is Labeled “Free-From,” That Doesn’t Mean It’s 100% Free of That Ingredient

"The meaning of voluntary free-from labeling can vary," explains FARE. For example, the label "gluten free" means the product contains less than 20 parts per million (0.002%) of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Other free-from labels like "peanut free" and "nut free" don’t define the maximum amount of allergen allowed. And while "dairy free" is used to label foods that don’t contain milk ingredients, creamer powder that is labeled non-dairy typically contains milk protein! This is why FARE advises consumers to read the ingredients list, not just the front of the package, to know what a food contains.

A Food That Might Contain Traces of a Common Allergen Does Not Need to Be Labeled with a Warning

FARE clarifies the misconception that every food that might contain traces of a common allergen must be labeled with a warning. According to FARE, statements such as "may contain peanuts," "processed in a facility that also processes wheat" or "made on shared equipment with milk" are called precautionary allergen labeling. These warnings are voluntary for manufacturers.