Food Allergies - what are they?

Food allergies have been a hot topic of conversation now for many years. There can be a lot of misinformation circulating, especially on social media, so here at the IBBA we thought it might be useful to clarify a few things. Phrases like “Food hypersensitivity”, “food allergy”, “food intolerance” are all bandied about, seemingly interchangeably, but definitely confusingly!

According to SafeFood, a food hypersensitivity is a bad reaction to a food that is otherwise perfectly safe to eat. On the island of Ireland, the three most common forms of food hypersensitivity are food allergy, food intolerance and coeliac disease:

A food allergy is an abnormal, exaggerated reaction of the immune system to certain foods. It involves the production of a specific kind of antibody which reacts to a particular food component and, in doing so, causes an allergic reaction.

Food intolerance is also a bad reaction to some food ingredient. However, the immune system is not involved. Examples include lactose intolerance due to the absence of the enzyme lactase and migraine induced by red wine.

Coeliac disease is an example of an “auto immune” disease in which the body is attacked by its own immune system. The reaction is triggered by eating gluten-containing foods. Gluten is a mixture of proteins called prolamins and glutenins that are found in cereals such as wheat, barley, rye and oats. People with medically diagnosed coeliac disease must avoid gluten for life to protect their health and well-being. It is not a choice, but a medical necessity!

Legally, a producer cannot claim that their food is gluten free or very low gluten unless the food has been laboratory tested to prove it.

What is an allergen? An allergen is any normally harmless substance that causes an immediate allergic reaction in a susceptible person. Food allergens are almost always proteins although other food constituents, such as certain additives, are known to have allergenic (allergy-causing) properties.

There are 14 food allergens which must be listed, by law, on food labels for prepacked food, or on menus in restaurants, or provided through information made available to consumers at food stalls, in shops, or anywhere you buy unwrapped food. These 14 allergens have been selected due to their prevalence and also their allergenicity. In other words, how commonly they are found in foods and how sensitive consumers are to them or potentially harmful they might be. So what are they?

  1. Cereals containing gluten - wheat (such as spelt and khorasan wheat), rye, barley, oats Note: The cereal name e.g., 'wheat', must be declared and highlighted, not 'gluten'
  2. Crustaceans, g. crabs, prawns, lobsters
  3. Eggs
  4. Fish
  5. Peanuts
  6. Soybeans
  7. Milk
  8. Nuts, (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, macadamia/Queensland nut) Note: The name of the nut, e.g. 'almond', must be declared and highlighted, not 'nuts'
  9. Celery
  10. Mustard
  11. Sesame seeds
  12. Sulphur Dioxide and sulphites (at concentrations of more than 10mg/kg or 10mg/L in terms of total sulphur dioxide) – used as a preservative
  13. Lupin
  14. Molluscs

Food allergy symptoms usually appear within a few minutes of eating the offending food, although they may be delayed by up to a couple of hours. The symptoms are usually those of ‘classic’ allergy, some of which may be:

  • Gut reactions: Abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea
  • Skin reactions: Itching and swelling (rash or nettle rash)
  • Respiratory reactions: Runny nose, sneezing, wheeze, cough

Sometimes you’ll see a phrase on a label like ‘may contain….’ or similar, to indicate that the product may contain an allergen. You might also see the phrase “Made in a facility that also handles nuts” or similar. What this means is that the producer cannot be absolutely sure that the food does not contain an allergen picked up from cross-contamination from another product they make. While this is not a legal requirement, some producers like to put those phrases on the label as a helpful alert to consumers.

Some people may have allergies to foods not contained in the EU list. Kiwi fruit is one example of this. The EU keeps the list of 14 allergens under review and may add to or remove some items from it in the coming years, so watch this space!

Finally, as you might remember from our previous blog all about Food Labels, it’s very easy to find out what the allergens are in your sliced pan - simply look at the ingredients listing on the wrapper and you’ll find them highlighted.

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