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5 things you need to know about food allergies

Millions of consumers in the U.S. suffer from bad reactions. “Today” food editor Phil Lempert discusses what you should know.

Millions of Americans are affected by food allergies, but up until now ingredient listings on packages have not been complete enough for consumers to avoid accidental ingestion of foods that may make them very ill or are even life-threatening.

In fact, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, more than 11 million consumers suffer from food allergies, and those allergies are the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting, accounting for an estimated 30,000 emergency room visits and 2,000 hospitalizations annually. In addition, it’s estimated that as many as 200 people die each year from food allergy-related reactions.

Food allergies are nothing to be ashamed of, and especially for teens who may think it "un-cool" to discuss something this mundane to their friends, it is critical that we raise the level of awareness of this terrible affliction without attaching a social stigma. The key is communication. And communication without embarrassment or shame.

It is estimated that 1.5 million people in the US have a severe allergic reaction to peanuts and that 50 to 100 people die every year as a result of the allergy. You should know the signs of a food allergy, and be prepared; warning signs may include wheezing, hives, a skin rash, vomiting, difficulty breathing, drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness or going into shock. Immediately contact a doctor or call 911.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, currently there are no cures for food allergies, and the only successful method to manage these allergies is to avoid foods that contain the causative proteins. 

To get your FREE TODAY Show Food Allergy Buddy card just go to:

The 5 things you need to know about food allergies

  1. More than 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies, and predictions are that the incidence of food allergies is on the increase.
  2. Eight food groups account for 90 percent of allergic reactions. They include peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc.), fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy, and wheat. There are a myriad of other things that can cause allergies for some people, including food additives such as aspartame or sulfites, or even genetically modified produce.
  3. There are ways in which a label can state that it has possible allergens. This can be stated as "Contains _________" with the allergen listed in immediate proximity to the ingredient declaration. For example, "Contains soy and milk." Or an ingredient that contains one of the Major Food Allergens can contain an asterisk referring the consumer to a statement of explanation. For example, "whey" would be listed as "whey*" and would be followed by "*milk" after the complete ingredient declaration. Ingredients: Sugar, chocolate, whey*, coconut, *milk.
  4. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires that food ingredient statements identify in common language that an ingredient is itself, or is derived from, one of the eight main food allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, fish, Crustacea, eggs, milk, soy, and wheat), or is gluten (from rye, barley, oats, and triticale). Foods that contain a protein of one of these major food allergens will also appear on the label if they are contained in a flavor.
  5. Look for “hidden” sources. Be careful of cross-contamination, this can happen in a toaster, griddle, oven, on plates and even, as we saw recently, from a kiss. Many vitamins and medications can contain allergens in their additives. Always check with your doctor and pharmacist to make sure they prescribe those that are safe. Some flavored coffees, teas and other beverages may contain a cereal protein which contains gluten. Always read those ingredient labels.

Biggest fallacy regarding food allergy labels
All labels adhere to these guidelines already. Keep in mind that FALCPA won't be enforced until January 2006. Be sure to read all labels carefully and be on the lookout for scientific or unclear terms (i.e., "casein" for milk, or "albumin" for egg) until the food industry becomes compliant with this new law. One glitch in the new law is that it does not require food companies to list on their labels “gluten”; FDA says that by 2008 they will determine the exact definition.

Eating out can be a nightmare
One of the most awkward and embarrassing aspects of having food allergies is going to a restaurant and communicating which ingredients are problematic. We've all seen a waiter rolling their eyes, disgruntled that they have to do a bit more work and fight with the kitchen. Then your food comes out — and it's wrong! Then you have to wait and watch everyone else eat while your "special" food is being prepared.

Tips for the holidays: The holiday season can sometimes be a challenge as many holiday treats can contain surprise ingredients, especially homemade baked goods that may contain peanuts or milk. Here’s our list of simple tips to minimize risks without putting a damper on the holiday fun:

  • Alert holiday party hosts about your food allergy and clarify all ingredients used to prepare foods.
  • Avoid dishes with sauces or myriad ingredients; these may contain hidden ingredients.
  • Eat before attending special events in case the foods that are served contain allergens.
  • If you are entertaining those who do have food allergies, use designated cookware and utensils to avoid cross contamination.
  • Stress to family and friends that food allergies are serious — reactions can be fatal.

We've developed a simple tool for you to communicate effectively every time — and everywhere — you eat out.  It's FREE, it's SIMPLE to use, and you print it out yourself. It’s the TODAY Show Food Allergy Buddy Card.

In a matter of seconds you can check off any foods you would like to avoid in the preparation of your meal. Then, print out as many cards as you like and hand them to your waiter when you place your order. There’s no cost for the service or the cards, which are available in adult and children’s designs.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .