Food allergies involve the body’s immune system reacting to certain proteins found in food. It treats these proteins much in the same way as it would a disease. Different people react to different types of food although some types have a greater chance of becoming a trigger. Between 2% to 10% of people are affected by food allergies, with a greater percentage occurring in children. Reactions can occur within a few minutes or over a period of several hours. Undiagnosed and untreated, severe attacks can be fatal.
In times and regions where food is abundant, the act of eating is more than being a means of survival. Pleasures are derived through signals received from various senses. Emotions and behaviors are also attached, making the experience unique for each individual. Studies are still being conducted on how the taste of foods affects the brain and senses as well as the individual’s eating behaviors.
There are varying factors which can alter the experience. The person’s current state such as feeling of hunger, past encounters with the dish and genetic dispositions can affect the taste. Although sometimes considered less important, the smell of food can also affect how it tastes. Both senses rely on chemical signals while touch relies on the physical texture of the food to relay signals. The mouth and face are areas which receive the most signals while the back receives the least.
An individual’s age and health also affects the experience of eating. Aging people and individuals suffering from taste disorders will have a different encounter with foods compared to healthy people. One of the most common disorders is known as phantom taste perception which involves an unpleasant or diminished capacity to taste. Most people that develop this condition happen as a result of a different illness or injury. A weakened sense of taste or smell can make it more difficult to detect whether the food item contains allergens or if the food is spoiled. For some people, proper oral hygiene can work wonders. In individuals taking certain medication, changing or quitting certain medication can help.
Eating foods that contain allergens can elicit an autoimmune response. For individuals that are allergic, consuming foods containing allergens can cause a variety of symptoms. Minor symptoms include itching or swelling around the mouth or areas in contact with the allergen. The person may develop hives, rashes or may experience gastrointestinal discomfort. Severe reactions can include a feeling of tightness in areas around the throat and chest, resulting in trouble breathing and possibly a reduction in blood pressure. People with food allergies do not have to eat the trigger to induce a reaction. When it comes to peanut allergies, using products containing peanuts, touching or even breathing peanut dust can cause the same reaction.
A variety of treatments are available to remedy varying degrees of reactions. For minor reactions, antihistamines can help reduce the symptoms. These are available over-the-counter or by prescription. Severe reactions will require a dose of epinephrine and a trip to the hospital. Individuals known to have severe reactions to certain foods should carry one at all times and make sure that it has not passed its expiry date. Other forms of medication may also be prescribed by the doctor to relieve symptoms.
More experimental treatments include Anti-IgE therapy and oral immunotherapy. With the first option, omalizumab is administered which affects how the body uses IgE. Oral immunotherapy involves placing controlled amounts of allergens underneath the mouth or swallowed to induce a reaction. This amount is increased over the duration of the treatment. It is espected that over time, the body becomes more accustomed to the allergens, eliciting smaller reactions.
There are at least eight commonly known allergens. These include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. Individuals can also be allergic to meat, corn, gelatin, seeds, spices and even vegetables. It is important for individuals with food allergies to also know which specific foods cause the reactions. Just as important is knowing its byproducts and foods which may contain even minute portions of the allergen. In the case of peanuts and tree nuts, consult an allergist on whether to avoid only one or both types of allergens. Refer to the following websites for more information about different allergens and their byproducts or alternative names.
Individuals with food allergies need not consume the actual allergen to generate a reaction. Cross-contamination occurs when safe foods are prepared on the same surfaces as foods that contain allergens. People with food allergies should take extra precautions of what they eat. In schools, restaurants or at home, preventing cross contamination is important. Kids and adults should always ask about the ingredients used to prepare the dishes and inform the server or chef of these requests. In most cases, members of the restaurant staff are more than willing to fulfill special requests. When it comes to a child’s school, inform instructors, staff, parents and other key adults about this issue. It is also important for them to know what to do in case an allergic reaction occurs. Wearing a medical alert bracelet, necklace or a similar accessory can also help inform those around the individual on what to do or who to contact in case the individual is unable to talk during a reaction.
When preparing food, it is important to separate the foods which contain allergens and those that do not. Always wash and sanitize any cookware, utensils and other tools before each use. Use different gloves when switching to or from foods containing allergens. Never use the same types of utensils or surfaces when preparing foods. Also remember to use different cookware and equipment for customers that have food allergies as allergens can still be passed even with cooking.