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What Are Food Allergens?

Cases of food allergies worldwide in recent years have not stopped growing, especially in children and young people, and especially in the number of life-threatening allergic reactions.

In the whole world, millions of patients suffer from some type of food allergy, specifically, around 8% of those under 14 years of age and 2-3% of adults. People with allergies to certain foods should avoid ingestion and contact with such foods, so they should know the composition of everything they eat.

Read on to learn more about food allergens and how to identify them in the products we consume.

What are Food Allergens?

An allergen is any substance, in principle harmless, that can induce an allergic hypersensitivity reaction in susceptible people. In the field of food, an allergen is that food or compound that is part of a food and that is capable of developing an allergy in consumers sensitive to it.

Food allergy is an immune response exaggerated that occurs in the body when it comes into contact with the food allergen, is mediated by type E antibodies (IgE) that, when uniting with the allergen, produce the release of various substances, which are responsible for producing the characteristic clinical manifestations. These manifestations, in their mildest forms, are seen as skin conditions (hives, eczema, or atopic dermatitis) or gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea, digestive discomfort, nausea-vomiting, or swallowing difficulties). In severe cases, they can produce anaphylactic shock (affecting different systems) with a risk of death.

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Differences between allergy and intolerance

Food allergy should not be confused with food intolerance, which is the inability to consume certain foods or nutrients without activation of the immune system and which are due, in general, to enzyme deficiencies that prevent proper metabolization of the nutrient. They present with very similar clinical pictures: pain, bloating, bowel sounds, flatulence, diarrhea, etc.

Despite having symptoms very similar to food intolerance, food allergy causes a hypersensitivity reaction in the person who has eaten food, which in severe cases can put his life at risk, hence the importance of knowing the content of allergens from the food we eat.

Identification of allergens in the food we eat

According to the regulation on food information, the consumer must have access to information on the ingredients of the food they consume, whether packaged or not, in order to recognize and make proper use of food, making decisions that adapt to your individual dietary needs, and in the case of allergens, to be able to identify those foods that are harmful to your health.

  • In the packaged foods we eat, allergen information appears prominently on the ingredient list on the label (for example, in bold or another color).
  • In non-packaged foods, all the ingredients of the product must be included in the letter or menu provided to the customer, clearly indicating the information related to allergens. To list allergens, the most common is to indicate their name (in bold), using symbols, or with a QR code.

Identifying Food Allergens Icons

Each of the 14 notifiable allergens can be represented by a symbol, making them easy to identify

  • Gluten is present in grains like wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelled, Kamut.
  • Some people allergic to crustaceans can suffer allergic reactions by simply inhaling the cooking fumes.
  • The presence of egg is indicated both when shell egg is used as any derivative of pasteurized egg (roe).
  • The main allergens in fish are proteins that are found in their muscle cells, they are thermostable so they resist heat and are not modified when cooked.
  • The peanut is from the legume family, but it is often considered a dried fruit due to its oil content. It has high allergenic power, causing intense and immediate reactions, even ingesting a minimal amount.
  • Soy protein is considered a very valuable and nutritious food component, which is used in the production of ice cream, fruit juices, pastry products, etc.
  • Milk proteins (caseins, sero proteins) are responsible for their allergenicity.
  • One of the characteristics of nuts is their high allergenicity and their stability against heat and digestive processes, which means that reactions are often intense and immediate.
  • Those allergic to celery may also have an allergy or sensitivity to fennel, carrot, coriander, parsley, …
  • The mustard is one of the most allergenic spices that you have recorded to date, both its prevalence and the allergenic potency.
  • Sesame seeds and sesame oil are common in Asian cooking.
  • The sulfites are sulfur derivatives that are used as preservatives in food additives. The labels are E-220 to E-228. They are used to prevent the browning of foods and for their antioxidant and antimicrobial action.
  • The lupine is a type of legume belonging to the same family as the peanut.
  • The mollusks are the other seafood allergies that produce more, both bivalves, gastropods, and cephalopods.

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Cross-contamination concept

If we talk about food safety, cross contamination would occur when food is handled without taking into account the necessary safety measures, producing food poisoning. For example, a salad could become contaminated with bacteria present in raw meat.

When we talk about allergies and food intolerances, cross contamination is the presence of an allergen in a food, product or prepared dish that should not contain it. If cross-contamination occurs we could cause a food allergy, with a high risk to the consumer’s health.

In both cases, cross-contamination is caused by not implementing security measures properly. Although in the case of food allergies the consequence would not be food poisoning, an allergic reaction.

Importance of traceability

According to some regulations, traceability is “the possibility of finding and following the trace, through all stages of production, transformation and distribution, of a food, a feed, an animal intended for the production of food or a substance intended for to be incorporated in food or feed or with the probability of being so ».

The traceability system allows knowing all the steps a food goes through, from the first stages of production until it reaches the consumer. Thus, traceability systems make it possible to detect where contamination has taken place.

Food companies must follow the principles of Good Handling Practices (GMP). This requires a commitment to ensure that products meet safety, quality and legal requirements. Following existing GMP controls will be essential for allergen management, for example avoiding cross-contamination.

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