About Food Allergies
An allergy is an immune system response to an otherwise harmless food or food component, usually a protein. The body reacts by flooding the system with histamines and other chemicals to fight off what is perceived as an invader in the body.
Food allergies are rare. According to experts, about 4% of American adults and children have a food allergy, with a slightly higher percentage of children under 5 years old. Allergies can be caused by more than 170 foods, but nearly 90% of food allergies are caused by milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, pistachios, etc), fish, shellfish, wheat and soy.
While children outgrow most food allergies; only about 20% of people “outgrow” a peanut allergy.
It is important to consult a board-certified allergist if you suspect you have a food allergy. Allergists can accurately diagnose the allergy and prescribe medication for its treatment. The only completely accurate means of diagnosing a food allergy continues to be a blind food challenge which should only be done by a board-certified allergist in a controlled environment.
Most allergy sufferers experience fairly mild reactions to a food allergen. Symptoms can include varying degrees of hives, swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing and vomiting. A small number of food allergy sufferers are susceptible to severe and potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis can constrict the airways in the lungs, severely lower blood pressure, and swell the tongue or throat, among other symptoms.
Strictly avoiding the consumption of the allergic food is the only sure way to avoid an allergic reaction. To this end, individuals with food allergies must diligently read food labels and ask about the ingredients and preparation of the food before eating. Research shows that food allergens are easily removed by washing hands and cleaning utensils or surfaces with soap and water.
Consult your doctor for prevention and treatment options if you believe you have a food allergy. Those allergic should always carry medication like epinephrine in the event of an exposure.
The real danger for peanut allergy sufferers is accidental consumption of peanut products, although mild reactions may occur if peanuts come into contact with the skin. Simply smelling peanuts or peanut butter cannot cause an allergic reaction. In one controlled study, 30 children with a significant peanut allergy were exposed to peanut butter by either smelling it for one minute or actually pressing the peanut butter onto the skin for one minute. About 1/3 of the children experienced a reddening or flaring of the skin, but none of the children experienced a respiratory or anaphylactic reaction. Another study concluded, “Casual exposure to peanut butter is unlikely to elicit significant allergic reactions.”
Refined peanut oil does not contain the peanut protein and does not pose a risk to people with peanut allergies. Unrefined peanut oil, which may also be called ‘gourmet’, ‘aromatic’ or ‘cold pressed’, may contain peanut proteins so they should be avoided. The vast majority of peanut oil available to consumers and foodservice is highly refined oil and presents no risk.
About 0.6% of the American population has a peanut allergy, and about 0.1% of the American population is believed to be subject to a life-threatening peanut allergy. For the remainder of the population, peanuts and peanut butter continue to be a popular, nutritious and economical food.
The U.S. peanut industry supports full disclosure labeling on food products and sponsors training programs for peanut product manufacturers. A number of therapeutic strategies to reduce or eliminate peanut allergy are currently being studied. Among these are Chinese herbal medicines, anti-IgE therapy, oral immunotherapy, and vaccine strategies that use genes from peanut proteins.
A unique Chinese herbal formula called “Food Allergy Herbal Formula-2” is being tested by a group at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, NY, and by the FDA as a new botanical drug in patients with food allergies. When this formula was used in mice for seven weeks it prevented anaphylactic reactions for six months following the treatment.
The most promising emerging strategy is oral immunotherapy using peanut protein, which has been shown to increase tolerance to peanuts. A doctor administers a gradual amount of peanut flour every day in a controlled environment. Two studies with peanut-allergic children have concluded that all the children were able to eat 10-15 peanuts without a reaction, more than the amount of an accidental ingestion.
For more information on peanut allergies, download our Peanut Allergy White Paper