Food Allergies: How they Affect Quality and How they Affect You
01 Aug 2013 08.13 am by K. Daniel
Allergies, most people have heard of them. Quite a few have them. Personally I am one of those few who suffer from bouts of a runny nose and uncontrollable sinuses, although the cause is not that apparent, dust I suspect.
Or perhaps it's just from the extreme weather changes in spring and autumn, considering many of my peers go through similar symptoms during the season. Cold winds accompanied by hot sunlight and some rain in between doesn't exactly scream out a healthy environment. But compared with the more mundane weather changes and hay fever, there is a darker side when it comes to allergies.
Food allergies are as the name suggest, sensitivity towards certain foods. The most common food allergies include eggs, milk, peanuts, and tree nuts, while less common allergies include shellfish, soy, fish, and wheat. The big 8 as they are also known are responsible for about 90% of allergic cases.
These allergies should not be confused with other conditions such as lactose intolerance where a person does not have the appropriate enzymes or bacteria to effectively break down the milk sugar, lactose. This results with symptoms such as nausea, stomach cramps, and an occupied lavatory amongst others. The same goes for celiac disease, which should not be confused with wheat allergies. Celiac disease means that the body is unable to metabolize gluten due to genetic predisposition. A component in many grain and grain products, gluten is not limited to wheat but also includes rice, barley, maize, oats, rye, millet, and many others.
So what is a food allergy exactly? In scientific terms, allergies are characterized by sensitivity to food proteins, more specifically one called Immunoglobulin E. Such proteins are present in a wide range of food products including nuts, seeds, grains, and animal proteins amongst others, less common in fruits and vegetables although exceptions may occur.
Interestingly, for vegetable matter the responsible protein is not Immunoglobulin E, but a protein group called Profilins. These are responsible for about 1/3rd of sensitivities towards pollen, and may be the cause of allergies to bananas, melons, watermelons, citrus, and tomatoes. Compared to the more common allergies which affect about 1 in 10 infants and 1 in 100 adults, fruit and vegetable allergies affect about 3% of adolescents. Usually it begins in infancy and continues up until adulthood, whereas more common allergies such as those to eggs, cereals, and milk, may appear (or in rare cases disappear) as time progresses.
One other allergy which may affect people handling grains and produce is latex allergy, which is a reaction caused by skin contact with certain products. Some plants produce a latex or wax as they are also known, and these can trigger reactions in people who are sensitive to them. About 40% of those who have latex allergies also show allergic symptoms when they eat the fruits and vegetables concerned. Commonly, the produce implicated are tropical fruits, such as banana, papaya, mango, kiwi, passionfruit, figs, and pineapple to name a few.
And what are the reactions or indicators of allergies? There are a wide range of symptoms when sensitive people are exposed to an allergenic product. These include swollen lips, mouth, and tongue after consumption, rashes, itching and hives after skin contact, muscle cramps, nausea, and in extreme cases, paralysis and death.
Anaphylaxis shock is a serious condition where the rashes, itching, and redness of skin is accompanied with swelling and lowered blood pressure. As a response to exposure to an allergenic product, the immune systems recognizes the food as a threat and acts correspondingly. In severe cases the reactions may include heart spasms, cardiac arrest (the heart stopping) and swelling, which in some cases can block air ways and limit or stop breathing. About 0.05 to 2% of individuals worldwide have been known to have gone through anaphylaxis shock.
In order to stop allergic reactions, especially severe symptoms such as anaphylaxis, several treatments can be used. Most notably, epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) injections can be used to manage symptoms, usually administered in the thigh region. Antihistamines, corticosteroids, and methylene blue have also been proposed but effectiveness has been variable depending on the case.
Of course the best way to manage allergies are through prevention. Several studies have been done to limit or manage allergies, and these tend to involve other food agents. One study done by Cross and Gill in the International Archives of Allergy and Immunology (2001) explored how bacteria flora (a.k.a. the "good" bacteria) may help regulate sensitivities in the gut, while another study published in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (2008) proposes that earlier exposure times might reduce the potential of having allergies later on in life. Of course these studies are still inconclusive, and there are many arguments for and against.
With respects to what can be done in a more practical environment, it would be prudent to test out if you suspect you or someone else has an allergy. This can be done by first touching the produce in question first and rubbing it on a small patch of skin such as your fore arm. If redness or rashes develop then chances are the subject might be sensitive to the product. If nothing occurs then proceed to do the same near the mouth and lips, which are slightly more sensitive skin regions than the forearm. Assessment is the same, if rashes, redness, or swelling occurs, it would be best not to consume the product. Finally, consume a small portion of the food and assess any reactions which may occur. Some medical facilities also offer an "oral food challenge" where small amounts of products are consumed and reactions are assessed.
In closing, with regards to allergies, prevention is always preferable than management after symptoms occur. Why risk a hospital visit if all that you need to do is eat smart? As such, if a sensitivity to a food product is known, then it would be best to avoid it. With food products, labelling and warnings are present and can be seen, especially considering the industry's zero tolerance policy, but when it comes to produce such as fresh fruits and vegetables, common sense and awareness comes into play.
You don't have to be afraid of eating foods, especially when they possess a plethora of valuable nutrients important to your wellbeing, but knowledge is power, and in this case, may spare you a lot of trouble.
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