Elizabeth Jarrard, RD LDN, regional educator for Burnaby, BC, Canada-based Vega, noted that each year, millions of Americans have allergic reactions to food, ranging from mild and minor symptoms to severe reactions, which are related to strong food allergies. Estimates are that 15 million Americans have food allergies—four percent of adults and eight percent of children in the United States.
While more than 160 foods can cause some sort of allergic reaction, the top allergens for North Americans are:
• Peanuts. One of the most potentially dangerous food allergens, peanuts are found in unexpected food sources, including Asian foods, candy, soups and baked goods. Some individuals may be so sensitive they can have an allergic reaction simply by inhaling the aroma of peanuts. Check labels closely and avoid cross-contamination in all kitchens.
• Tree nuts. Peanuts are legumes, so often a tree nut allergy (almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachios and pecans) is completely separate.
• Sesame. An allergic reaction to small sesame seeds requires special attention at restaurants. Watch out for any tahini, vegetarian burgers, faux meat and vegetable oil.
• Fish. Bass, cod and flounder are at the top of most common fish to cause allergic reactions. Carefully examine soups stocks as some may contain fish.
• Shellfish. An allergy that can result in anaphylactic shock for some, all crab, lobster, shrimp and scallops need to be avoided for those with shellfish allergies.
• Wheat/Gluten. Reactions to wheat can either be an allergy (in the form of Celiac disease) or a sensitivity. Those with Celiac disease—an autoimmune disorder, which changes digestive tract function to make digestion of gluten-containing product impossible—must avoid gluten completely. Other people may have sensitivity to wheat or gluten without Celiac disease. Wheat is found in most bread, pasta made with semolina flour, most crackers and many preservatives. Gluten can be found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale, or any product made in a facility that processes these grains or their flours.
• Dairy. Allergies to milk are either to the sugar in milk (lactose) or the proteins (whey and casein). People with lactose intolerance do not produce enough of the digestive enzyme called lactase, which breaks down lactose. Milk is in yogurt, ice cream and most baked goods.
• Eggs. Found in most baked goods and many processed foods, eggs sometimes hide under the name “albumin” and “ovalbumin.”
• Soy. Tofu, tempeh, soy sauce and most faux vegetarian meats are soy-based, but soy is also found in many processed foods.
• Corn. Most preservatives are corn-derived, as is (often) maltodextrin, and high fructose corn syrup—all common ingredients in processed foods.
• Mustard. Found not only in the condiment, but also in sausages, deli meats, salad dressings and barbecue sauces, mustard is an often-unexpected allergen.
• Sulphites. Added to some processed foods to maintain color, prolong shelf life and prevent the growth of microorganisms, other names for sulphites include: potassium bisulphate, sodium bisulphite and sulphur dioxide. Pay special attention to wine, beer and cider, concentrated lemon and limejuice, canned fruits and vegetables, cereal, cornmeal, cornstarch, crackers and muesli, condiments, herbs, spices and teas, tomato pastes, vinegar and dried fruits.
• Yellow dye number 5. This food coloring can cause hives for some people. Read ingredient labels closely to determine whether a processed food contains this.
• Monosodium glutamate (MSG). A flavor enhancer traditionally used in Asian cuisine, when consumed in large amounts, MSG can cause flushing, sensations of warmth, headache, facial pressure or chest pain.