Protecting Yourself From Food Allergies
As the Director of the FDA’s Food Labeling and Standards Staff, it’s my job to ensure that consumers have accurate, complete, and informative labels on the food that they buy. One of the areas that is a top concern for us from a food safety perspective is food allergies.
If you or a member of your family suffer from food allergies, you must protect yourself at all times. While some allergies are just irritating, approximately 30,000 Americans go to the emergency room each year to get treated for severe food allergies.
What is a food allergy? It is a specific type of adverse food reaction involving the immune system. The body produces an allergic antibody to a food. Once a specific food is eaten and binds with the antibody, an allergic response occurs.
A food allergy is not the same as a food intolerance or other non-allergic food reactions. A food intolerance is an abnormal response to a food or additive, but it does not involve the immune system. Compared to food intolerances, food allergies pose a much greater health risk.
In fact, it is estimated that 150 to 200 Americans die each year because of allergic reactions to food.
What are the symptoms of a food allergy? The most common symptoms are:
- Hives, itching, or skin rash
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other parts of the body
- Wheezing, nasal congestion, or trouble breathing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
In a severe allergic reaction to food, you may have more extreme versions of the above reactions. Or you may experience life-threatening symptoms such as:
- Swelling of the throat and air passages that makes it difficult to breathe
- Shock, with a severe drop in blood pressure
- Rapid, irregular pulse
- Loss of consciousness
To reduce the risks, FDA is working to ensure that major allergenic ingredients in food are accurately labeled. Since 2006, food labels must state clearly whether the food contains a major food allergen. The following are considered to be major food allergens:
- Tree nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans
- Shellfish such as crab, lobster, and shrimp
These foods account for 90 percent of all food allergies in the United States
So, remember to take all measures to protect yourself and your family members who suffer from food allergies. In addition to avoiding food items that cause a reaction, we recommend that you:
- Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace stating that you have a food allergy
- Carry an auto-injector device containing epinephrine (adrenaline)
- Seek medical help immediately if you experience a food allergic reaction