The Challenge of Living With a Food Allergy

Allergic to peanuts? Simply avoid peanuts and foods that contain them. Allergic to shellfish? Don't order prawn. But it's not always that easy.

By Helen Bateman, from Allergy and Asthma Relief

You may be wondering, what’s the problem? If you’re allergic to peanuts, simply avoid peanuts and foods that contain them. Allergic to shellfish? Don’t order the prawn dishes on the menu. But it’s not that easy, particularly given our increasing dependence on prepackaged and processed foods. Up to 50 percent of people who are allergic to peanuts experience an accidental peanut ingestion every four years, even if they are exceedingly careful. It is also possible that a juice drink boxed on a packaging line that is also used for milk products could receive enough milk protein contamination to trigger an allergic reaction. The same is true of tofu desserts packaged in ice-cream plants. A banana slice lying against a slice of kiwi may contain enough kiwi protein to provoke an allergic response and even chips in a bowl previously containing nuts may prompt an allergic response in a nut-allergic person.

Simply working out what’s in certain foods is a major challenge. Terminology and the inclusion of less than obvious ingredients complicate matters. For instance, it can be particularly hard to avoid eggs. Did you know that most commercially processed cooked pastas (including those used in prepared foods such as soup) contain eggs or are processed on equipment shared with pastas that contain eggs? Or that eggs may be used to create the foam or milk topping on specialty coffee drinks and are put in some cocktails? Or that flu vaccines are grown on egg embryos and may contain small bits of egg protein?

Many medications contain food proteins. And if you’re allergic to fish, watch out for Worcestershire sauce and Caesar salad dressing; they both contain anchovies.

Then there’s milk. Just because the label says a product is dairy-free, that doesn’t mean it’s milk-free. Current labeling guidelines allow the use of the term dairy-free even for foods that contain milk by-products.

As noted, milk and soy proteins are often added to increase protein content or enhance flavor to a wide variety of foods. Likewise, spices (such as garlic and coriander) and seed derivatives (such as mustard and sesame seeds) are included for flavoring in many prepared foods. Peanut and nut products are added to flavor and thicken sauces (such as spaghetti sauce, gravy, and barbecue sauce) and baked goods. And eggs and milk may be added to boost the nutrients in other food products.

Manufacturers are improving labeling but you have to find out a lot about the content of foods yourself. For example, some people who react adversely to peanuts also react to unrefined or gourmet peanut oil. Peanut oil is sometimes called groundnut or arachis oil, and many manufacturers often label foods as containing “vegetable oil,” which may well contain peanut oil. Possible contamination is usually addressed by “may contain nuts” labeling.

But it appears consumers are generally becoming more aware of labeling. In a 2004 survey of consumer attitudes it was found that 78 per cent of consumers claim to check food labels, 31 per cent always, 26 per cent usually, and 21 per cent occasionally. Three in five people found information on food labeling easy to understand, though 1 in 5 found some labels “fairly difficult” to understand, and 1 in 20 found them “very difficult.”

While confidence in the accuracy of food labeling appears to have slightly increased, more than half of the consumers interviewed for the survey were concerned about the accuracy of health claims made for various products, although the majority (58 per cent) were “fairly” rather than “very” concerned.

Supermarkets are also becoming more “allergy-friendly.” Most major supermarkets now have lists of foods that are “free from” (nuts, egg, milk, gluten, and other culprit foods). These lists are available on request, so it is worth telephoning the customer service department of your local store for more information.

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