All About Allergens & How to Stay Healthy

'Tis the season for holiday celebrations, which means lots of baking! According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), roughly 200,000 individuals in the US seek emergency care due to allergic reactions to food each year. It is important to keep this in mind when preparing food and baked goods as reactions can range from mild to life-threatening. In this blog, we will go over what causes an allergic reaction to food, what some of the most common allergens are, and what you can do to help keep those around you safe.

Food intolerances are often confused for allergic reactions. While food intolerances are often caused by the lack of certain enzymes in the body, allergic reactions are driven by the immune system. One of the responsibilities of the immune system is to identify and respond to potential threats. The immune system also has a specific type of cell that can create memory cells so that the body will remember a pathogen and be able to produce the cells to fight that pathogen, known as antibodies or immunoglobulin, more quickly in the future. With food allergies, the body mistakenly labels proteins from the food as harmful and creates an antibody known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE) to mount an immune response. Due to the immune system’s ability to create memory cells, an immune response, or allergic reaction, will occur every time the person encounters that specific food.

The most common food allergens are soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, shellfish, fish, egg, and sesame. Even a tiny amount of that food can cause a reaction in individuals with an allergy. Reactions can range from a skin rash or hives, to an anaphylactic reaction. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening reaction in which the body goes into shock. It can lead to death within 15 minutes if not treated. Symptoms can include a rapid drop in blood pressure and heart rate, swelling of the airway, throat, and tongue, rash, vomiting, and fainting. Treatment includes an emergency injection with an epi-pen and immediate transport to the nearest Emergency Department. Unfortunately, I have heard many people say that it is not their responsibility to consider allergens as the person with the allergy should have an Epi-pen. While generic Epi-pens are covered by most insurances, if a person does not have insurance or it is not covered, an Epi-pen can cost 650-700 dollars. Whether it be due to the cost or the person simply forgot, we can all do our part to keep those around us safe.

If you are preparing a dish to bring to an event, provide a list of ingredients so that those with allergies can reference it. One of the biggest things to keep in mind is the possibility of cross-contact. Cross-contact occurs when proteins from one food get onto another food. For example, you might make a peanut-free cookie but if the batch you made prior did have peanuts and you used the same cookie sheet there will be protein from the peanuts in the peanut-free cookies, which will lead to an allergic reaction. Remember, all it takes is a microscopic amount of an allergen to lead to a reaction. If you are making several dishes, you can consider making the dishes with the least amount of common allergens first and make sure that the dish is safely put away in a sealed container prior to starting another.

Unlike contamination with bacteria, cooking a dish that has been contaminated with an allergen protein will not remove that protein. Always thoroughly wash all equipment as well as your hands and workspace prior to starting a new recipe. Simply wiping down knives and workstations with a wet cloth is ineffective. All cooking utensils should be cleaned thoroughly with soap and water using a cloth, sponge, or scrub brush that has not previously come in contact with that allergen. Surfaces should be cleaned with a commercial cleaning chemical like Lysol or Chlorox as studies have shown that dish soap alone is ineffective at removing peanut protein from countertops. Hands should be cleaned with warm soap and water, not hand sanitizer.

Taking these steps may seem like an inconvenience but could be life or death for an individual with a true food allergy. We can all do our part to make sure everyone has a safe and happy holiday season!

Do you need help with your nutrition heading into the New Year? PUSH511 offers customized nutrition coaching! Regardless of what your goals are, we can help you get there.

About the Author

Cristen Headshot

I am a Licensed Registered Dietitian with experience in critical care, cardiology, weight loss, allergy services, and food service. I graduated from Penn State University with a BS in nutrition and finished my RD training at the University of Maryland. I am currently in PA school and am looking forward to combining my love of nutrition with medicine. After moving to Baltimore in 2019, I did a trial class at PUSH511 Fitness as I was looking for accountability and to meet new people. When I walked into the gym for the first time, everyone was congregated on one side cheering on a member who was struggling with ring muscle-ups at the end of the workout. It was such an uplifting moment to witness. I left the gym that day in dire need of ginger ale, but also very excited about this amazing and supportive community I had stumbled upon. I am grateful for this opportunity to give back and share my love of nutrition!


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