What are food allergens?
Proteins in foods or derivatives of them that cause abnormal immune responses. Prevalence of food allergies around the world is believed to be increasing, with more than 8% of children and 2% of adults in countries like Australia and New Zealand having allergy to one or more foods. The most common allergens for young children are milk and egg but, fortunately, many children outgrow these allergies by the time they have reached 5-7 years of age. On the other hand, allergies such as those to seafood, peanut and tree nut may develop later and are lifelong conditions.
Practically all foods have the capacity to cause an allergic reaction in a person who has become sensitised to proteins in it. However, in Australia and New Zealand the foods or food groups that cause about 90% of all allergic reaction are identified as: peanuts; specific named tree nuts: almond, Brazil nut, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, pecan, pine nut, pistachio, and walnut; soy; milk; egg; wheat; fish (finfish); crustaceans; molluscs; sesame; and lupin.
In addition to allergens, the ANZ Food Standards Code also requires gluten (from wheat, rye, barley, or oats) and added sulphites (present at 10mg/kg or higher) be declared due to their potential to cause non-allergic, hypersensitivity reactions.
Allergic reactions to foods vary greatly from mild gastrointestinal discomfort, to skin rashes and potentially life threatening asthma and anaphylaxis. Commonly many adverse reactions to food are referred to collectively as food allergies. However, true food allergies represent only a fraction of the diverse range of individualistic adverse reactions to foods, that also include food intolerances.
Some consumers may also experience mild allergic symptoms to fresh fruits and vegetables such as kiwi, apples, peaches, melons, pineapple and papaya. This condition, known as oral allergy syndrome or pollen-food syndrome, is normally associated with a primary allergy to pollen (e.g. birch, ragwort or grasses) or latex. In these individuals, the immune system reacts to the food proteins as if they were pollen and the symptoms are generally limited to the mouth and throat.
There is currently no cure for food allergies but effective care and emergency treatments are available. The only successful method to manage a food allergy is avoidance of all foods containing the allergen.
Living with an allergy, either for you or someone in your family, requires great compromise to the quality of life. It takes longer to find products in the supermarket that are safe to eat because of the need to study food labels and scrutinise ingredient lists, and it costs more because generally cheaper products and house branded foods have ‘may contain’-like allergen statements on the label.
Despite food allergies affecting only a small proportion of the population, risk management and mandatory product labelling for the key food allergens are critical food safety matters for businesses in the food industry. This is where a responsible food industry plays an absolutely critical role.