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Food allergies need to be taken seriously

November 2018

Range of food on a platter
Some foods have been identified as more likely to cause allergic reactions

Food allergies are today a major concern. It is estimated that over 2 million people in the UK have been officially diagnosed with a food allergy and there may well be many more taking their own precautions against problems they have identified with eating certain foods.

Recently a 15 year old girl died after she had eaten a baguette from Pret A Manger. It turned out she was allergic to sesame although this was not indicated in the ingredients when she bought it.

A food allergy happens when there is an abnormal response to food triggered by the body’s immune system. The reaction can be mild to very serious indeed. The most common food allergy symptoms include a tingling or itching in the mouth, a swelling of the lips, face, tongue or throat; wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing; abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, or dizziness and even fainting.

Severe reactions can result in life threatening conditions and even death, as this sad case involving Pret A Manger shows. While most food allergies exist from childhood, it has been known for adults to develop allergic reactions at any age due to changes in their body.

Laws say that consumers must be made aware when one or more of the main 14 allergens (foods that are most likely to cause allergic reactions) are included in food products.

These foods have been identified as:

  • celery
  • cereals that contain gluten – including wheat (such as spelt and Khorasan), rye, barley and oats
  • crustaceans – such as prawns, crabs and lobsters
  • eggs
  • fish
  • lupin
  • milk
  • molluscs – such as mussels and oysters
  • mustard
  • tree nuts – including almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts
  • peanuts
  • sesame seeds
  • soybeans
  • sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million)

When you look at the ingredients of most packaged products today, they will all carry information re any of the above ingredients. We often hear jokes about people saying their packet of peanuts included a warning note that it included peanuts in the ingredients, but this just means the manufacturer is complying with the law.

Freshly handmade non pre-packaged food doesn’t have to carry warning signs, but even here the shop has to make sure the information is readily available.

Sometimes we may feel a little unwell after certain foods but can’t really pinpoint the problem. At the moment there is no easy test one can do at home to check on allergic reactions. However, if you have concern, your doctor can refer you to an allergy centre for testing.

There are various tests involved here. A skin prick test is when extracts from certain foods are dropped in minute quantities on your arm. The skin is then pierced with a tiny hole (this is painless) that lets the possible allergen contact the cells of your immune system. Any reaction such as itching, redness or swelling indicates a problem. A blood test can also be done to check the amount of allergic antibodies in the blood.

Sometimes one can have an idea of the food that may be causing a problem. Here a dietician may become involved to help plan a food elimination diet. This is when any food thought to be causing a reaction is withdrawn for between two to six weeks.

Occasionally you might hear about other tests such as hair analysis and leukocytotoxic tests which claim to detect food allergies through the white blood cells, but these are not medically authorised and won’t be recommended by your doctor.

In the past people may well have put up with symptoms not realising that they were caused by the food they were eating on a regular basis. Today we are eating far more complex foods with large ranges of ingredients but thanks to modern science and modern laws together with wider awareness, it is becoming much easier to live with a food allergy.

There is a lot of useful information on food allergies at allergyuk.org.

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