Food allergies affect about 10-15 million Americans today. Interestingly, a similar number of people believe they have an allergy as well! How could this be?
To answer, first let’s understand what a food allergy is:
A food allergy is a response by the body’s immune system to a suspect food. The immune system creates antibodies that attack the substance in the food that is (wrongfully) identified as harmful. The result of this attack is the creation of various chemicals in the body that cause a wide range of symptoms from hives to swelling to system shutdown.
Many people wrongfully associate some symptoms to mean they have an allergy:
1. Food intolerances – usually lactose or gluten intolerance. This is not an allergy. Our digestive system is lacking in an enzyme that can digest the food. In milk products, an enzyme known as lactase reacts with lactose. People will lactose intolerance don’t manufacture enough lactase.
2. Sensitivity to certain additives – from MSG to synthetic dyes to sulfites, some people have a reaction, but it is not an allergy.
3. Histamine attack – when people have an allergic reaction, their body creates histamines (a type of chemical) that cause various symptoms. But histamines are also found in some foods and may cause similar symptoms. The usual suspects are strawberries, chocolate, and some wines.
Whether you have an allergy or intolerance, federal regulations have mandated the labeling of allergens on processed food products. The 8 most common allergies account for 90% of all allergies in the US: Milk, Wheat/Gluten, Soy, Eggs, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Fish, Shellfish. These 8 need to be clearly labeled when they are included in a product’s ingredients. for example:
CONTAINS: MILK, SOY
Many products are marked as “maybe”, causing considerable frustration for people with allergies:
MAY CONTAIN TREE NUTS
Even worse are the vague warnings such as:
MANUFACTURED IN A PLANT THAT ALSO PROCESSES PEANUTS
What do these “maybe” warnings mean? Basically it is a way for manufacturers to take the easy way out and cover their ass instead of being more diligent in manufacturing and cleanup processes. There is always a risk of cross contamination between manufacturing lines of a factory. Or human error.
When in doubt, your best bet is to call the food manufacturer for more information. If you are still not sure, stay away from a product. The more severe the allergy, the more vigilant you need to be.
Do you or a family member have a food allergy? How do you deal with ambiguous allergy warning labels?