Food allergies – when food becomes a problem

By Adem Lewis / in , , , , , , /

Food is an essential part of our lives. We eat to sustain ourselves
and to be in good health. For many of us, eating is
also a source of joy. But not for everyone. Take Tony; he was allergic
to eggs when he was a baby. Just licking a spoon with some
egg on it could land him in hospital. Today, as an adult, he can eat
a whole omelette without a problem. Suzy is allergic to peanuts
and becomes seriously ill if she eats just trace amounts. Her sister Ana is also allergic to
peanuts but she can eat a whole peanut and only displays mild symptoms. People with the same food
allergy may react differently. But what is a food allergy? It is a reaction of a person’s immune
system to a particular protein in food. The immune system does not
recognise the protein as a “friend” but rather as an “enemy”. How does this work? When Suzy ate
peanuts for the first time her immune system
produced specific antibodies which attached
themselves to immune cells. During this first
exposure to peanuts, Suzy did not experience
any allergic reactions. But, she was sensitized
– you could say her immune system had been primed to
react to peanut allergens. The next time Suzy ate peanuts
her immune system went into high alert. Peanut allergens get attached to
the specific antibodies in the immune cells. This triggers the release of
chemical substances like histamine which causes various symptoms. These can be mild and affect
only some parts of the body or be systemic and much
more severe, even life-threatening, like an anaphylactic
shock for example. In Europe, about 1-3%
of the population suffer from food allergies. But which foods are allergenic? In fact, any kind of food
containing proteins can be allergenic. Tony was lucky – like many children
with an allergy to eggs or milk, he outgrew his allergy
when he got older. Other allergies are
generally not outgrown. Suzy, for instance, is likely to
keep her peanut allergy all her life. What about treating food allergies? The best way to deal with them
is to avoid the triggering foods. Clear information on food
products and restaurant menus helps people with food allergies
to avoid the offending foods. But many questions remain. Why are some people allergic
to certain foods and others not? Why do people with the same
food allergy react differently? And why do some people
develop food allergies later in life? As scientists increase their
understanding of allergic reactions to food, they are helping more and more
people to manage their food allergies safely, enjoy their food and be in good health.

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