Food allergies can range from merely irritating to life-threatening. Approximately 30,000 Americans go to the emergency room each year to get treated for severe food allergies, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). It is estimated that 150 to 200 Americans die each year because of allergic reactions to food.
Food allergies affect about two percent of adults and four to eight percent of children in the United States, and the number of young people with food allergies has increased over the last decade, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Children with food allergies are more likely to have asthma, eczema, and other types of allergies.
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Some food allergies can be outgrown. Studies have shown that the severity of food allergies can change throughout a person’s life.
"There is no cure for food allergies," says Stefano Luccioli, M.D., senior medical advisor in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Food Additive Safety (OFAS). "The best way for consumers to protect themselves is by avoiding food items that will cause a reaction." OFAS is part of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN).
To reduce the risks from allergic reactions, FDA is working to ensure that major allergenic ingredients in food are accurately labeled in accordance with the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA). Allergenic ingredients are substances that are capable of causing an allergic reaction.
In addition, there has been widespread use of allergen advisory labels on products that may have allergenic ingredients that were introduced by way of cross contact during the manufacturing process. Cross contact occurs when a residue or other trace amount of an allergenic food is unintentionally incorporated into another food.
Because FALPCA does not require the declaration of allergenic ingredients introduced through cross contact, FDA is developing a long-term strategy that will help manufacturers use voluntary allergen advisory labeling that:
Is not misleading
Conveys a clear and uniform message
Adequately informs food-allergic consumers and their caregivers
What is a Food Allergy?
A food allergy is a specific type of adverse food reaction involving the immune system. The body produces what is called an allergic, or immunoglobulin E (IgE), antibody to a food. Once a specific food is ingested and binds with the IgE antibody, an allergic response ensues.
A food allergy should not be confused with a food intolerance or other nonallergic food reactions. Various epidemiological surveys have indicated that almost 80 percent of people who are asked if they have a food allergy respond that they do when, in fact, they do not have a true IgE-mediated food allergy.
Food intolerance refers to an abnormal response to a food or additive, but it differs from an allergy in that it does not involve the immune system. For example, people who have recurring gastrointestinal problems when they drink milk may say they have a milk allergy. But they really may be lactose intolerant.
"One of the main differences between food allergies and food intolerances is that food allergies can result in an immediate, life-threatening response," says Luccioli.
"Thus, compared to food intolerances, food allergic reactions pose a much greater health risk."