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Food Allergies: a safe eater’s guide

August 12, 2016 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Do you ever get a headache, indigestion, nausea, stomach ache, or joint pain after eating a meal?

If you’re like many people, you probably have. And any one of those might be a symptom of a food allergy.

They’re not the rash or hives or watery eyes, or the worst-case choking we associate with food allergies. And of course symptoms like these can show up for totally non-food related reasons.

That’s where trouble lies—possibly very serious trouble. A food allergy symptom that’s wrongly attributed to other causes can range from annoyingly persistent, to frightening, to, in rare cases, fatal.

For some, an offending food item can lead to anaphylactic shock. It’s a severe allergic reaction that causes the tongue and throat to swell, making breathing dangerously difficult and requiring an immediate trip to the emergency room.

Who’s protecting us from allergens?

The FDA requires that foods containing the following common allergens list them on the ingredients label:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat
  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans

These are the cause of 90 percent of all food allergies, and the FDA is right to require food producers to warn us of their presence.

But mistakes happen. Occasionally a product is accidentally mislabeled. Perhaps, more commonly, they show up in your meal while dining out when detailed ingredient lists are less common.

There’s no perfect system

It’s not uncommon for a producer to bring different versions of a product to market.

A good example? High-end chocolate bars with exotic ingredients. They’re all the rage these days. Well and good, especially as chocolate’s exceptional antioxidant powers have been confirmed.

But there’s 70 percent dark chocolate with cranberries and salted caramel. There’s also 70 percent dark chocolate with almonds and sea salt. And there’s 70 percent dark chocolate with lemon creme filling … one ingredient of which is milk.

It’s easy to imagine how ingredient tracking could get quite confusing, with lookalike chocolate bars—or granola mixes, or baked goods.

And the milk in the lemon creme filling? It’s not on the ingredients label. There could be a legitimate reason. Some guidelines specify if an ingredient is above a certain percent of total ingredients, it must be declared. Maybe the milk in the filling fell under that number. The wheat in the baked goods, the soy in the granola? Same.

I’d never call these mistakes deliberate. There’s too much risk, thanks to the FDA’s power to pull products off the shelves.

Let the data be your guide:

These product types are the most often recalled for “undeclared allergens.”

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  • Baked goods
  • Snacks
  • Candy
  • Dairy
  • Salad dressings, sauces, gravies
  • Milk
  • Wheat
  • Soy

Yet another reason to avoid processed foods

The reality is that no system can guarantee that all producers label all products accurately. We’ve all seen ingredient labels that require a PhD in chemistry to understand.

So please add the risk of undeclared allergens to all of the other reasons to avoid prepared and processed foods whenever possible.

Do it yourself and keep it clean

I do not exaggerate when I say buying processed foods and eating in restaurants is more likely than not hazardous to your health.

Yes, many, many restaurants and producers are trying earnestly to clean up their acts.

A 2014 survey, for example, looked at chain restaurants—arguably the worst of all offenders, and frequented by 82 percent of Americans at least once per week.

The good news? Some 30 percent of respondents said they planned to serve locally sourced foods more often in 2014. The bad news … that’s only 30 percent. Worse, 54 percent said they had no plans to serve locally sourced foods.

Here’s the plan.

First: If you have symptoms that can’t be attributed to other causes, there are simple, standard, reliable food allergy tests that don’t cost much and might be covered by your insurer.

Second: take charge of your health and your future, and do it yourself. Eat healthy: local, free-range, organic, fresh, cage-free, antibiotic-free. Get my Newport Natural Health Cookbook. It’s free and has enough healthy recipes to last you for a good, long time.

Third: If you know your allergies, and can’t replace store-bought with fresh and local, always read the label.

I know, you’re not a PhD, so how do you know what you’re reading?

Some experts recommend, and I support:

  • Avoiding any food that has more than five or six ingredients
  • Avoiding any food with chemistry exam ingredients with names of more than three syllables
  • Buying foods that contain only natural ingredients, like fruits and vegetables

Enjoy summer’s bounty free of worry and in the best of health. Bon appetit!

And take a look at the list of recalled foods, if you do buy something prepackaged.


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