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The War Against Allergens

March 4, 2016

By: Akhila Vasan, PhD, SEF Fellow and Project Manager

My friend Sara has a food allergy that requires her to be very careful in ordering food at restaurants. One afternoon, Sara and some friends were at a Spanish restaurant and ordered tapas for the table. As the waiter was taking down the order, Sara mentioned that she had a food allergy – peanuts! The menu had to be carefully chosen and prepared so there was no cross contact during food preparation.

This is unfortunately a very common story, and chances are you know someone with a food allergy!  Researchers at FARE (Food Allergen Research and Education) estimate that up to 15 million Americans have a food allergy.

So what exactly is a food allergy? What happens when we ingest an allergen? What foods commonly cause this reaction?

A food allergy is an abnormal reaction to a food, triggered by our immune system. The immune system can be thought of as our body’s defense mechanism, showing signals when we come in contact with anything that does not agree with us. These signals may be mild symptoms, such as a rash, or in some cases severe and life threatening symptoms, such as difficulty breathing and swallowing or a sudden drop in blood pressure.

In Sara’s case, the first time she consumed peanuts, her body was exposed to the peanut allergen and the immune system was activated against the peanut allergen. On activation, the immune response produced a certain specific reaction, highly specific to the peanut allergen. This basically set a recognition mechanism in place, and any subsequent exposure to the peanut allergen would result in an accelerated signal via the immune response, or one can even say that the body’s immune response is in overdrive.  If Sara consumed or came in contact with peanuts again, her body would instantly recognize the peanut allergen resulting in a highly activated immune response. Unfortunately, no cure is available for allergens, and the only cure is to completely avoid allergens.

Almost any food can cause a food allergy. In the United States, eight main foods have statistically shown to cause the most number of food allergies: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soya. These foods, commonly referred to the Big 8, account for 90% of all the food allergies and must be declared on any processed food according to the USA Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). Such requirements are useful for people like Sara who have an allergic reaction to any of the foods listed above. In spite of the regulations, in the United States, over 80% of recent allergen recalls were associated with mislabeling on packages, resulting in tremendous economic implications. Because this issue is so important, the GMA Science and Education Foundation is hosting a free educational webinar on March 9 at 1:00 PM EST; bringing in experts from regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA, along with industry experts to highlight trends and opportunities in this area.  Join us to know more about this topic and interact with experts in this area.

So, the next time you are at a grocery store, look at the package and note that it will certainly mention if a food has a specific allergen or is produced in a facility that also produces any of the Big 8 allergens. For example it may say the food has peanuts or manufactured in a facility that also processes tree nuts. Such labeling information is very helpful for Sara or anyone with food allergies, and can even save a life!


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Filed under: Product Safety

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