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Allergens in food

What do prawns, celery, peanuts, soybeans, and wheat share in common? Well, these foods can cause serious allergic reactions, but why do some foods trigger allergies more than others, and how do food manufacturers deal with these ingredients?

What are food allergies? 

Allergies occur when a person reacts adversely to a substance, many of which may be  completely harmless to most other people. These substances, known as allergens, can come from a variety of sources such as dust mites, pets, pollen, medication, and foods. It is estimated that allergens in food are a cause for concern for around 6% of Europe’s population.1 

In an allergic reaction, the immune system tries to protect the body from an allergen by trying to eliminate it. This response is ‘immunity gone wrong’, wherein a harmless substance is perceived as a threat by the immunological system and is attacked.2 When an allergic reaction occurs, the immune system produces antibodies – proteins created by the immune system to identify and neutralise harmful foreign objects such as pathogenic bacteria and viruses. 

What causes allergic reactions to food?

Despite allergens causing different levels of reactions, there is one single antibody responsible for causing an allergic reaction to food - known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE).2 Allergic reactions usually happen within a few minutes of exposure to an allergen and can range from minor to life threatening. Milder cases may cause sneezing, a runny or blocked nose, itchy or watery eyes, coughing, or rash.3 In some cases, there can be a more severe reaction and anaphylaxis can occur.3 Symptoms of anaphylaxis are characterised by breathing difficulties, fast heartbeat, anxiety, and losing consciousness. 

Some common food allergens are cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, molluscs, eggs, tree nuts, sesame seeds, mustard, dairy, and soybeans. Certain individuals’ immune systems will react adversely to the proteins present in these foods and this triggers an allergic reaction. Although it is known how an allergic reaction happens, it is not clearly understood why these specific foods bring about such reactions. 

Who is responsible for managing food allergens? 

Managing food allergens is an important public health issue. Dealing with them is a collective responsibility for the food industry, regulators, health professionals, and allergic individuals themselves. 

Declaring allergens on food packaging is considered to be the best way to warn consumers. However, this is possible only if the producer is aware of the allergen’s presence in the product. Accidental cross-contamination from production and warehouse facilities, reusable equipment, employees, packaging processes, and cleaning and disinfection activities can cause allergens to end up in unlikely places.4 For example, a factory that produces pasta might produce varieties that are made with and without egg. Even if the two kinds of pasta are produced at different times, they might use the same equipment. If cleaned insufficiently, traces of egg may end up in both varieties via the common equipment. This makes it incredibly important to assess food allergen contamination risk at each stage of food production by considering all ingredients, employee knowledge, equipment, packaging, by-products, and the risk of cross-contamination.4

Sometimes producers use precautionary labelling to warn consumers about food products potentially containing traces of allergens. As a result, you might see warnings such as “may contain traces of nuts” or “made in a factory that also processes eggs” on products that do not actually contain these allergens as ingredients. 

Fun fact: Did you know that food intolerance is different from a food allergy? Food intolerance does not involve the immune system and occurs when the body cannot digest a certain food. Lactose in milk and gluten in cereals are common causes of food intolerance. However, both these foods can also cause allergies. 

What are our rights as consumers?

So, can we be absolutely sure that products we buy don’t contain allergens? In the EU, the short answer is yes. Consumers who suffer from food allergies have the right to protect their health by seeking information about the presence of allergens in the food they buy. The EU law on food information to consumers ensures this.5 It does this by directing food businesses to follow certain rules regarding labelling. These rules include:

  1. Food labels are required to list all allergens present in a product using a font, typeset, or colour that is different from the one used for regular ingredients. This is done in order to enable consumers to quickly notice this information. Many food products list allergens using bold font.
  2. In case a product does not list all ingredients, it is still required to declare allergens. This can be observed on wine labels which declare sulphites as an allergen.
  3. Foods purchased online are also required to declare allergens in their description. This way, consumers do not have a disadvantage by not being able to physically inspect the label before purchasing the product.
  4. Consumers have the right to ask catering establishments, restaurants, or any other sellers of non-packaged food about allergens. Staff as such establishments are required to know about the presence of allergens in food they sell. 

Some foods that are considered allergens in Europe are not considered as such in other parts of the world. Do you know of any examples?

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