Five things science tells us about food allergens

By Robin Young | PREVIEW Columnist

Most of us have a friendly, even loving relationship with food. It nourishes us; it strengthens us; it even makes us happy. But every once in a while there is that one food or group of foods that becomes the enemy through no fault of our own. It makes us get rashes, feel uncomfortable, or even kill in some extreme cases. Food allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities can shift our relationship with food from joy to fear.

It’s a global problem. Food allergies are becoming increasingly common in countries around the world. In developed countries, the prevalence of food allergies is increasing, affecting about 10 percent of the population. In developing countries, where food allergies were not previously widespread, the number of food allergy reports has increased significantly.

Defining “priority” allergens and ordering their corresponding labeling has been an important part of the work of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an FAO/World Health Organization (WHO) body dedicated to setting international food safety and quality standards. In 1999, the Codex Alimentarius Commission created a list of foods or ingredients that must be declared on a food label. These “priority” allergens are allergens that cause allergies in the global population and produce significant reactions even when consumed in small amounts.

FAO and WHO are currently reviewing new scientific developments in the field of food allergens to ensure Codex standards and guidance are up to date.

Here are five things you should know about food allergens:

1. A food allergy is an abnormal immune response. A food allergy occurs when exposure to a specific food triggers an abnormal immune response. Allergic reactions can occur quickly, within minutes of ingestion or exposure, or they can take up to several hours to appear. Allergic reactions are unpredictable, with symptoms ranging from mild localized rashes to a severe anaphylactic reaction. Intolerance, like lactose, is not the same as the abnormal immune response caused by an allergy. For this reason, they are treated as a separate category. Although some childhood food allergies are known to resolve over time and there has been some success with desensitization studies, there is no cure for food allergies. Prevention is the only solution.

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2. Some food allergies are worse than others. The Codex Alimentarius priority allergens are foods or ingredients that cause allergies in multiple populations around the world and are more likely to cause severe reactions, even when consumed in small amounts. These priority allergens include the “Big 8”: milk, egg, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans and sulphites (in concentrations of 10 mg/kg and above). In the United States, the “Big 8” account for nearly 90 percent of all food allergies. The United States, European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand all follow Codex Alimentarius recommendations and require mandatory labeling of these allergens in prepackaged foods.

3. The prevalence of food allergies varies from country to country. Food allergies are related to diet and eating habits. Therefore, the prevalence of certain food allergies may vary from country to country or from region to region. The introduction of new foods can inevitably bring about the introduction of new allergies. For example, the kiwi fruit was first brought to Japan in the 1960s. Today, according to recent surveys, the kiwi is among the top 10 allergy-causing foods in the country. Although the Codex Alimentarius provides an international list of foods or ingredients that should always appear on a label, the list does not necessarily cover all food allergens that affect specific populations. Countries should investigate in their national context which prepackaged foods should be labelled, and at what level food allergens become harmful, taking into account the country’s dietary habits.

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4. Hygiene and laboratory tests can help limit and detect allergens in food. In most cases, it is certain proteins contained in certain foods that are problematic for allergy sufferers. These proteins can be naturally occurring or ones that have been altered during processing, for example roasting peanuts changes the structure of some of their proteins. Additionally, these proteins can be part of the food itself or present through cross-contact with an allergen. Codex Alimentarius recommends good hygiene practices to effectively minimize the risk of allergen cross-exposure. The use of laboratory test kits is another good tool that can detect very low levels of allergenic proteins in most food products. These kits allow food manufacturers to quickly confirm that food processing equipment has been properly cleaned, although these are best used by trained technicians.

5. Food labeling and care protect allergy sufferers. The Codex Alimentarius Commission has established a code of practice on handling food allergens for food companies to minimize the risk of cross-contamination. However, despite best efforts, food allergens can still be unintentionally present in some foods. A good example is the production of dark chocolate on a production line that also produces milk chocolate. It is extremely difficult to remove all traces of dairy products. A statement “May contain milk” or a similar statement should be used to alert allergic consumers that a product is not suitable for them. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is working to provide international guidance on these precautionary allergen warnings; However, allergic consumers need to carefully examine food product labels and heed these types of claims in order to make safe food choices.

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Food allergen labeling is effective, providing safe commercial food products even for those with allergies. Currently, many countries have enforced food allergen labeling regulations; However, your approach largely depends on the national context. By developing labeling guidelines and codes of practice to deal with food allergens, Codex Alimentarius helps countries protect consumers and ensure fair trade practices.

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