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Expert Q&A: Eating With Food Allergies

An interview with Stanley Cohen, MD.
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

An estimated 12 million Americans suffer from food allergies. Dairy and wheat are just a few of the foods that can cause reactions and allergies in adults and children.

Food allergies and reactions can be confusing. Often, it's not easy to figure out which foods contain ingredients that may trigger a reaction. Further, many people who think they are allergic to a food may actually be confusing a food reaction for an allergy -- and may not need to eliminate certain foods.

 

WebMD turned to Stanley Cohen, MD, for answers to common questions about food allergies. He's a specialist in pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition, and author of Healthy Babies, Happy Kids: a Common Sense Guide to Nutrition for Growing Years. 

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is a predictable reaction to a specific food or food group. An allergy is caused by an immune reaction to the protein in a food, which brings about a sudden release of chemicals that cause the symptoms.

Symptoms typically appear within a few minutes to two hours of consuming the food. They can range from mild -- like a rash, itching, or swelling -- to life-threatening, including breathing difficulties and swelling of the throat or tongue. Many people with severe allergies carry an epinephrine pen, a self-injectable device to help counteract the allergic reaction and give them time to get emergency medical attention.

Many children and adults will start with a single allergy, and then develop others. Some even "lose" their allergy over time. If you are allergic to milk protein, you may also be allergic to other kinds of milk protein, like goats' milk and soy beverages.

What are the most common food allergies?

Eight foods account for 90% of all food allergy reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, shellfish, and fish.

In older children and adults, fish, peanuts, shellfish, and tree nuts are the most common allergies. These allergies are also considered the most serious, because they can be life-threatening.

If you are trying to avoid allergenic foods, what should you look for on food labels?

It is essential that you become an avid label reader. Start at the list of ingredients, which is where you will find the clues to what is contained within the product. 

Become familiar with all the food terms for your specific allergy. For example, if you are allergic to milk protein, you need to avoid all foods made from milk, including cheese, yogurt, half-and-half, and cream.  Avoid all foods that contain whey, casein, caseinate, nonfat milk solids, lactoglobulin, cow's milk protein, nougat, curds, sodium caseinate, or lactalbumin. Look carefully at butter, margarine, ice cream, cakes, puddings, sorbet, breads, soups, vegetables with sauces, and more.

People with allergies would benefit from a diet that is less processed and closer to natural foods, because there are fewer additives in these foods that could cause problems. 

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