Food allergies are becoming increasingly common and I suspect it’s due to environmental rather than genetic factors since I’m sure that there we didn’t have as many problems with allergies now as we did a hundred years ago or so. Either way, food allergies are a major concern that people should be aware of, especially when serving children food since they may have forgotten to inform adults of an allergy (i.e. a friends parent).a Some people have minor reactions to foods they are allergic to whilst others will have serious reactions affecting their whole body.
How Do Food Allergies Develop?
Food Allergies Vs Food Sensitivities
First off, it’s important to note that food allergies are different from food sensitivities. If you’re sensitive to a particular food molecule such as gluten, lactose or peanuts then you may have bloating or gas. These food sensitivities do not trigger the immune system and are not life-threatening. Food allergies, on the other hand, can be life-threatening and do trigger the immune system in such a way that histamines along with various other chemicals are released by the body triggering allergic reactions such as:
- Rhinitis (nasal drip, congestion, sneezing)
- Anaphylactic shock
It’s impossible to have an allergic reaction to a substance your body hasn’t encountered yet. This is because an allergy is caused by an immune response to a molecule your body considers to be foreign. For the body to recognise the molecule is foreign, it must first encounter the molecule to set up an immune response for subsequent encounters. Usually, the food molecule must be encountered multiple times before an allergic reaction develops.
The reason why people develop food allergies is largely unknown. I suspect it’s a mix of being genetically predisposed for your body to recognise a particular molecule as foreign as well as your environmental exposure to these food molecules.
The first step in developing a food allergy is sensitisation. This is where the body is exposed to a small amount of a particular food molecule and produces a defensive protein (an antibody). This process occurs when the body detects any molecule it detects as foreign such as viruses or bacteria.
After being exposed to the food molecule on one or several occasions, the body will be able to quickly produce the antibodies it chooses to produce when the food molecule you’re allergic to enters your body again.
Variations In Food Allergies
Some people will have mild allergic responses to a specific protein from a particular food whilst other people will have much more severe reactions. In some parts of the world, people will be predisposed to be allergic to certain food molecules which may not be considered an allergen in other parts of the world. For instance, if you live in Italy, you are more likely to be allergic to fish. It’s thought that certain ways in which foods are processed in specific parts of the world may contribute to these more location-specific allergies or perhaps that widespread of consumption of certain foods increases the odds of having an allergy in response to that food.
Elicitation is the triggering of the immune response in reaction to the foreign food molecules (specifically the proteins), entering your body. The food molecules provoke an immune response which manifests itself as an allergic reaction. Allergic reactions can cause damage to the tissues within your body which is one reason (other than the fact that allergic reactions are unpleasant) you should try to avoid them as much as possible.
A low concentration of the allergenic food molecule is likely to trigger a lesser immune response compared to if a high concentration of a specific allergenic food molecule was ingested.
Avoiding Allergic Reactions To Food
Here are some tips for avoiding allergic reactions to food when out and about:
- Keep any medication on you which will reduce the symptoms of or prevent an allergic reaction.
- When unsure if a portion of food contains a food molecule you’re allergic to, avoid it.
- Always check the ingredient labelling when buying food.
- When consuming food prepared by a friend, ask what ingredients they used.
- Ask about cross-contamination if it’s an issue when food is prepared by someone else.
- Make restaurant or kitchen staff aware of any allergies when eating outside home.
- Tell people you’re with about your allergic reaction (especially if it’s severe) so they know what to do.
Hopefully, these tips will help to prevent allergic reactions from happening unexpectedly so you can minimise symptoms in response to food allergies.
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