Food Allergies: What You Need to Know

They’re frustrating, mysterious, and increasingly common. Learn how to protect yourself from a potentially dangerous allergic reaction.

Allergies are increasingly common

Food allergies are a growing public health concern, with the prevalence of food allergies in children increasing 50 percent from 1997 to 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, up to 15 million Americans have a food allergy, including 4 percent of all adults and 5 percent of children, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

What’s behind the increase? Over the past several decades, our diets, lifestyles, and how foods are processed and introduced into the diet has changed dramatically, says Sonal R. Patel, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at the Hungtington Asthma & Allergy Center in Pasadena, California. Here’s what you need to know about common food allergies, including how to spot, avoid, and treat them. 

Allergy versus intolerance: What’s the difference?

The eight most common food allergens are milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. These account for around 90 percent of all food allergies. You might be wondering where substances like gluten—which up to 6 percent of Americans have a sensitivity to—come in. The distinction between food allergies and food intolerance or sensitivity is an important one.

If you have a food allergy, your immune system reacts to the allergen by producing antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE), explains Dr. Patel. IgE antibodies cause an allergic reaction such as itching in the mouth, skin hives, wheezing, swelling, and anaphylactic shock. 

"When you have that IgE antibody to peanuts, for example, you have an immediate hypersensitivity," says Dr. Patel. "Within a few minutes there will be swelling, itching, or hives. It’s an immediate type of reaction that happens every time you eat the food."

Food intolerance or sensitivity, on the other hand, does not trigger an IgE reaction and is more about how your body processes a certain food. Your body may react with symptoms like sluggishness, gas, gastrointestinal issues, bloating, or headaches. 

"It’s the nature of that food and how you process it, not that you’re allergic to it," says Dr. Patel. Regardless, food intolerances can be severe, as is the case with celiac disease, which is an autoimmune reaction to gluten that can damage the small intestine.

What causes food allergies?

Food allergies typically develop due to a combination of factors. Some of it has to do with the way a food’s proteins are structured and the way your immune system respond to those proteins, explains Dr. Patel.  How your immune system develops and processes things overall contributes to the development of food allergies. Genetics play a role, too. But is there any way to avoid a food allergy from developing?

It turns out, early exposure is key. Until the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study was published in 2015, the conventional wisdom was to keep common food allergens away from children, especially those at a high risk for developing a food allergy, for the first few years of life. 

But the LEAP study revealed that wasn’t helping. The study followed 530 high-risk infants, ages 4 to 11 months, who did not have a peanut allergy at the start of the study until they turned 5 years old. Of those who were fed peanut butter at least three times a week, 1.9 percent had a peanut allergy at age 5, compared to 13.7 percent who were not exposed to eating peanuts before the age of 5.

"For many years, the dogma had been avoid, avoid, avoid. But we’ve come to realize that’s doing the opposite of what we want," says Dr. Patel. "Early introduction gets your immune system used to these proteins so that you don’t develop that IgE allergic antibody to it and you develop a tolerance to it."

What to do if you or your child has a food allergy

There is no cure or proven treatment for food allergies. If you or your child is diagnosed with a food allergy, management is key, says Dr. Patel. Learning how to read labels, carrying an EpiPen in case of accidental ingestion, and having plans for avoidance and how to deal with a reaction are the best ways to stay safe.

And remember: Kate Farms formulas are plant-based and do not contain common allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans. No artificial sweeteners. No artificial flavors. No corn. Plus, they’re made with organic pea protein, which is highly bioavailable, meaning your body can use it readily.

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