The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Food Allergies in the 21st Century

Food Allergies in the 21st Century

The Food Journal

October 14, 2013

What Happens in a Food Allergy?

In an American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology article about Food Allergies Out to Dinner, it is stated that, “The number of cases of anaphylaxis from foods in the United States increased from 21,000 per year in 1999 to 51,000 per year in 2008.” When anaphylaxis - a severe potentially life threatening allergic reaction - strikes, one can swiftly enter anaphylactic shock where throats can swell enough to cut off breathing. Anaphylaxis is thought to be less common in non-Westernized countries.

Johns Hopkins recent research reveals “a genetic glitch at the root of allergies” where “aberrant signaling by a protein called transforming growth factor-beta, or TGF-beta, may be responsible for disrupting the way immune cells respond to common foods and environmental allergens, leading to a wide range of allergic disorders.” This key information needs to get out to people who believe they have food allergies (or want to have food allergies) who outnumber the people who actually have allergies. This information could also change the way food is being withheld from children because there is the thought it would create problems. 

An allergy that grew in importance over the last decade is the gluten allergy.  While celiac disease -- a long-lasting digestive condition that’s triggered by eating gluten -- does involve the immune system, it isn’t life-threatening unless untreated over the long term. That didn’t stop students from taking Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass to court, settling on an agreement to ensure that students with celiac disease (and other food allergies) can “fully enjoy the university’s meal plan and food services in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” The Center for Celiac Research & Treatment makes suggestions for diagnosis and treatment.  

Symptoms of a Food Intolerance:

There are shared symptoms for food allergies and intolerance. According to WebMD, both can cause nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Intolerance differs from food allergies where gas, heartburn, headaches, irritability or nervousness is experienced as the food irritates your stomach, or your body can’t properly digest. Food intolerances can come anytime in a person’s life leaving a consumer baffled and frustrated they can no longer eat their favorite food. The most prominent food intolerance is lactose, but other widely known intolerances include gluten, sulfites, MSG, red wine and food coloring.

Adults and Food Allergies:

Childhood allergies don’t always go away in adulthood, and the FDA reports that two percent of the population suffer adult onset allergies. The Food Allergy Center at MassGeneral Hospital for Children reports on the cross reactions of pollen and food allergies.The affected person first becomes allergic from exposure to airborne allergens (e.g., Birch pollen), which then results in allergic symptoms from eating plant foods that contain related allergens,” says Dr. Wayne Shreffler, PhD. There are additional theories to the aforementioned pollen. One is a byproduct of better hygiene, or the hygiene hypothesis, which is also applied as a theory to children. Living environments are more sanitary than ever. According to a study at the University of Connecticut Health Center, there is “less exposure to microbial and parasitic stimulations, leading to a lack of immune sensitization tending towards T helper 2 (Th2) dominance. “

Government Labeling of Allergens:

Due to the increase in allergies in America, Congress amended the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act with The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requiring more extensive labeling of major food allergens on packaging. It also notes a .5% increase of celiac disease caused by gluten in foods. The FDA lists instances where products did not disclose a major allergen such as See’s Candies Dark Chocolate Blueberries (undeclared milk) and Krasdale Foods Inc. Crispy Honey Oats and Flakes (undeclared almonds).

The FDA requires labels to list sulfites if a food contains at least ten parts per million. It also prohibits restaurants, supermarkets, and food processors from using sulfites on fruits and vegetables (except grapes) that are sold raw or likely to be eaten raw. There is still no requirement for restaurants to disclose which of their foods contain sulfites. Consumers purchasing unlabeled foods at a deli or supermarket may be concerned about sulfites. It could be suggested that the “store manager check the ingredient list on the products original bulk size packaging, or urge the consumer to avoid prepped foods that contain dried fruits, canned vegetables maraschino cherries and guacamole.” (IFAS

The Responsibility of Retailers and Restaurants:

While the School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act would require all schools to have an EpiPen to reduce young lives lost to food allergies (the case of seven year-old Amarria Johnson in Virginia), it is the recommendation of The Food Journal that every supermarket and restaurant should stock an EpiPen at customer service, especially if there is a large assortment of pre-made foods for in-store consumption.

Many states have not passed laws like The Food Allergy Awareness Act in Massachusetts requiring certain food establishments to have on staff a certified food protection manager, who has obtained a training certificate, as well as allergy notifications on menus and signage around the establishment. It would be prudent for retailers and restaurants to therefore take on the education of allergens independently, explaining to their employees key facts such as “commonly used ‘hidden' proteins are casein, whey and lactose, derived from milk, and albumin from egg; and the name arachis is frequently used to describe peanut products, both in foods and in cosmetics.” (The World Allergy Organization, How to Avoid Hidden Sources of Offending Foods)

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has hosted Webinar Series on Allergens and can be contacted as an educational source.