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November 1999 Issue
Coping with Food Allergies
by Ronda L. Halpin
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For some people, eating healthy takes a little more effort than it does for the rest of us. People suffering from food allergies must temper their efforts to stay healthy with a keen awareness of what goes into making their food. However, armed with a little information and a watchful eye, people with food allergies can enjoy their food as much as any other person. It just takes someone willing to be vigilant.

What are Food Allergies?

People frequently use the term "food allergy" to describe a variety of adverse physical reactions to foods. But a true food allergy is an abnormal response of the body's immune system to certain foods or ingredients.

An abnormal response occurs when the immune system overreacts to substances (usually proteins) that are harmless to most people and starts releasing antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies attached themselves to special cells called mast cells, which then release substances that cause a variety of allergic reactions.

The Culprits

About 90% of all food allergies are caused by just a few ingredients. The most common allergens include:

  • cow's milk
  • egg whites
  • shellfish and fish
  • legumes
  • peanuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds and cashews
  • wheat
  • soybeans

A number of foods commonly believed to be allergenic are not. Chocolate, strawberries, tomatoes, citrus fruits and corn are often blamed for allergic reactions, but they are rarely the cause. Sugar is not an allergenic food, although it is often thought to be.

The majority of adverse reactions to foods are not true food allergies, but rather are sensitivities or intolerances. The symptoms are similar, but these reactions -- unlike allergies -- either don't involve the immune system, or they involve a different part of the immune system than true allergies do.

A Note on Additives

More than 2,000 food additives are commonly used today, including:

  • preservatives
  • conditioners
  • flavorings
  • colorants
  • sweeteners

The following additives are most widely associated with allergic reactions:

  • Sulfites -- preservatives
  • Parabens -- preservatives
  • Nitrates/Nitrites -- preservatives
  • MSG -- a flavoring
  • FD and C Dyes -- colorants
  • BHA, BHT -- antioxidants
  • Benzoates -- preservatives
  • Aspartame -- a sweetener

Sulfites are among the most widely used additives in prepared foods, and they may also be the most likely culprits when it comes to reaction incidents. Sulfiting agents are used to preserve foods and sanitize containers for fermented beverages. When checking food labels, keep in mind that some sulfites are also known as SO2; these include sulfur dioxide, sodium or potassium sulfite, bisulfite and metabisulfite. Sulfites are commonly found in baked goods, teas, condiments, relishes, processed seafood products, jams and jellies, dried fruit, fruit juices, canned vegetables, dehydrated vegetables, frozen vegetables, soup mixes, beer, wine, wine coolers and hard cider.

Until recently, the highest levels of sulfites were in restaurant salad bars. However, because of the growing rate of reaction to sulfites, the Food and Drug Administration banned their use on fruits and vegetables intended to be served raw. The agency also mandated labeling for packaged foods that contain more than 10 parts per million of any sulfiting agent, so that people sensitive to sulfites may easily identify products they should avoid. Alcohol consumption for people who are allergic to sulfites is also discouraged.

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