Friday, April 25, 2008

Concerned about Food Allergies?

Food allergies are a growing concern in the U.S. with the incidence of food allergies doubling in the last 10 years. Food allergens are the leading cause of severe life threatening reactions, causing an estimated 30,000 emergency room visits yearly and
150 – 200 deaths. About 2.1 million children in the U.S. have food allergies. These statistics come from a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Eight foods account for 90% of all food allergies. These are: milk and dairy products, eggs, fish, crustaceans and shell fish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans. More than half of children with allergic reactions to milk, eggs and soy will outgrow their sensitivity to these foods by school age but allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are rarely outgrown.

Symptoms of food allergies can include a tingling sensation in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and throat, difficulty breathing, hives, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness and even death. Some people have mild reactions and can eat small amounts of the offending allergen. Others may go into anaphalactic shock when oils or crumbs of the food are in the room. Food allergic reactions involve the immune system and are the body’s reaction to an offending protein in the food.

Some reactions to food are food intolerances, rather than allergies. These reactions usually involve the gastrointestinal system causing gas, bloating, diarrhea or vomiting. Other reactions such as headaches and skin rashes are also common. The most widespread intolerance in the U.S. is lactose intolerance. This inability to digest lactase, the sugar in milk, is common in the African American, Hispanic and Asian communities. Lactose-free milk is found in most grocery stores. Many lactose intolerant people can enjoy processed milk products such as cheese, ice cream or yogurt if eaten in small quantities.

Celiac disease is an intolerance of gluten, found in wheat, rye and barley. Serious reactions to gluten can include destruction of the lining of the intestine leading to a malabsorption of nutrients, stunted growth and even neurologic symptoms. Recent interest in gluten free diets has shown improvements in a multitude of symptoms, especially those resulting from infections. Further research will confirm these links. Avoiding gluten in processed foods can be difficult since wheat products are staples in the American diet. Choose foods made with rice, corn, oats, potatoes and beans. Read labels closely to see if wheat products are used as thickeners, extenders or coatings.

Since 2006, food processors have been required to list any of the eight food allergens mentioned above that are in packaged food. This listing is usually found within the ingredient list or separately near the Nutrition Facts label. Packages may even mention a food allergen that might be remaining on equipment from processing a similar food. An example would be a processing a variety of granola bars on the same day.

Whether you suffer from food allergies or keep company with those who do, becoming acquainted with food ingredients is important. It may take more time to prepare food from scratch, but you are assured that your food is uncontaminated with food allergens. It may also be a healthier way to eat. Not only are you avoiding offending ingredients, but hopefully choosing fresh, simple ingredients that contain nutrients in their natural form.

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