Food allergies are highly common – both in children and adults – and the number seems to be increasing.
As anyone with a food allergy will attest – they are scary: even with the best preventative measures and perception, trace ingredients or cross contamination can cause devastating effects.
Friends, family and colleagues should always be aware of the food allergies those who they are most frequently around suffer from. Whilst practically any food item can cause an allergic reaction, curiously, the vast majority of food allergies are caused by only 10 food categories.
In this article, you will learn exactly what those food categories are, what exactly a food allergy is, how they occur and many more important pieces of information that will be helpful to you going forward.
Today we look at the 10 most common food allergies in the UK.
Read on to find out more.
What is a Food Allergy?
Simply put, a food allergy is a disorder caused by the body’s immune system reacting abnormally to a commonly harmless food substance by seeing them as a threat: the body will attempt to attack the proteins of the specific food, by releasing its own defensive proteins known as antibodies.
An antibody commonly deployed is called immunoglobulin E (IgE), whose sole purpose is to inspect, seek and destroy any sign of infection, bacteria or virus. In response to the (mistakenly) offending intaken food protein, the IgE antibody will release various eradication chemicals, perhaps the most important one being Histamine.
Histamine and IgE-Mediated Food Allergies
We are, perhaps, all familiar with the term antihistamine and its relation to alleviating allergic reactions. Why is this?
Well, that is because histamine is IgE’s favourite weapon of choice: meaning, histamine is the cause of most symptoms and bodily responses which commonly occur during an allergic reaction.
An inflammatory chemical, histamine is ordinarily responsible for the following bodily reactions:
- small blood vessels expand, causing skin to swell turn reddish in hue
- excites nerves in the skin, leading to itchiness
- increase mucus production
Although histamine reactions are localised and limited to certain parts of the body, a reaction known as anaphylaxis can occur: the immune system spinning into overdrive, releasing large quantities of histamine and other defence chemicals into the bloodstream to be transported around the entire body to treat the ‘infection’.
There are a number of critical symptoms to be aware of when we talk about anaphylaxis; being aware of these can, often, be a matter of life or death, as they can develop suddenly and progress quickly. The symptoms include:
- faster-than-usual/rapid heartbeat
- persistent cough
- difficulty breathing – often a suffocation-type sensation
- wheezing/gasping for air
- sweaty, damp or clammy skin
- anxiety, panic, confusion or aggression due to predicament
- Collapsing or lack of consciousness
- Other allergy symptoms: itchiness, red skin, runny nose, sickness, abdominal pains
Non-IgE-Mediated Food Allergies
It is crucial to make yourself aware of non-IgE-mediated food allergies, also.
Caused by different immune system antibodies, this type of reaction is usually that of the less fatal variety: typically affecting the skin or digestive system via abdominal pain, diarrhea or eczema (though not limited to these).
Who Gets Allergies?
Though absolutely anyone can become allergic to a food item, at any point in one’s lifetime, there is a lot of discourse and debate as to whether allergies are random occurrences or whether hereditary genetics play some role in their emergence.
Put simply, if you or your partner have a particular allergy, there may be a chance for it to be passed onto your children: though they won’t necessarily develop those very same allergies.
Food allergy vs food intolerance – The Important Distinction
Fortunately, the vast majority of physical reactions to food are as a result of intolerances and not allergies. As some of the symptoms overlap and people can often use the terminology interchangeably, it is important to outline a brief distinction between the two.
Food intolerances more often than not will merely give the affected person some discomfort when certain foods are ingested and usually impact said person’s quality of life via the reduction in food choice. Often, a person affected by a food intolerance can ingest small amounts of the food in question without being severely hampered or impacted in the long-term outside of inconvenience.
A food intolerance will never trigger the immune system to mercilessly defend itself: the immune system is not involved in a food intolerance or subsequent reactions, therefore an allergy test will not be helpful in this regard.
Some common reasons for food intolerances include (but are not limited to):
- inability to completely digest a food item due to an absence of necessary breakdown enzyme within the body – for example, lactose intolerance
- celiac disease – digestive condition triggered by gluten (most commonly found in cereals and grains)
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – lifelong bowel/digestive system condition triggered certain foods: often inflammatory foods such as spice
- sensitivity to food additives – often used in preservatives for dried fruits and vegetables, canned foods and wine may sometimes trigger asthma in affected people
- stress/psychological triggers – an example being an overexubrance of foodstuffs considered ‘rich’: chocolate, fatty foods, certain varieties or brands of alcohol
Remember, though sometimes alarming and discomforting to the affected individual, food intolerances will never be fatal: the best strategy here would be to have empathy and keep a keen eye to see if their condition deteriorates over time.
The UK’s Most Common Allergies
It’s estimated that 1 in 4 people in the UK have at least one allergy. The 10 most common food allergies are:
- cow’s milk/dairy
- fish (most commonly cod, haddock, pollock, salmon and tuna)
- food additives – sulphites (inc. sulphur dioxide) and benzoates (inc. benzoic acid)
- shellfish (such as crab, lobster, prawns and shrimp)
- tree nuts (including, but not limited to: almond, brazil, cashew, hazelnut, pistachio, walnut)
It is thought that approximately 1% of children in the UK are allergic to cow’s milk. Dairy is found within countless food items, outside of the most obvious examples.
A cow’s milk/dairy allergy differs to lactose intolerance – which is merely the inability to digest milk sugars (lactose) correctly and completely – instead, an allergy to milk happens when the immune system reacts aggressively and overreaches in its response to the main proteins found within milk: whey and dairy.
Under most jurisdictions, product labels should adequately express a label with the word “contains milk” or “milk”. Always pay attention to labels or request an allergy sheet from retail staff when eating in or ordering takeout.
Do be conscious of the most obvious examples of milk-based products, too: chocolate, butters, cheeses, protein powders, milkshakes, ice creams, etcetera.
Vegan alternatives are great workarounds to such a commonly used ingredient such as milk: the caveat being that you aren’t also allergic to the alternatives like soya, oat or almond-based milk products.
Another commonly used, concealed ingredient found within commercial food items. Eggs are a stealthy ingredient which can cause allergic reactions unless you pay concerted attention to product labels.
From burgers and meatballs to pastas and sauces, eggs are commonly used as binders, due to their adhesive-like qualities. Although a product may not taste like the pungent taste and aroma associated with a singular cooked egg, cakes and other baked goods demonstrate how subliminally an egg may constitute a foodstuff.
As with all allergy advice, pay careful attention to product labels and avoid all foods which you may suspect has egg as part of its ingredients list.
Anything you may reasonably assume is a fish – that does not have a shell whilst it is alive – will fall under an allergy to fish.
A fish allergy is usually triggered by directly ingesting fish or a food item consisting of a fish-based ingredient, such as fish oils. However, there have been some reports of people having reactions to merely touching a fish or inhaling fish water vapors.
As with most food, you will either be able to inspect the label for fish or constitutional ingredients, or ask the establishment to provide you with an allergy reference sheet.
It is highly advisable to avoid seafood restaurants or those who offer a large variety of fish dishes in order to avoid the potential for cross-contamination. Also, it may be beneficial to avoid certain national cuisines and takeaways which culturally cook in fish, soy or peanut oils.
Condiments can sneakily contain fish-based ingredients, also. The most common types of sauces which may include fish are Worcestershire sauce, Caesar salad dressings, some barbeque sauces and pig-free gelatin.
Commonly used additives – mainly those used as preservatives – such as sulphites (from number E220 to E228) and benzoates (from number E210 to E215, E218and E219) can cause allergic reactions.
Sulphites are commonly used in cured meats, dried fruits and vegetables as an additive, but also occur naturally in the production of wines and beers.
If an allergic person ingests sulphur dioxide, the most common reactions are that of asthma or allergic rhinitis. Some allergic individuals have also suffered heart attack as a result of ingesting highly acidic beverages containing sulphites.
Fortunately, under UK and EU law, products containing 10 mg, or higher, of sulphur dioxide/sulphites per 1 kg/1L must expressly state so on the product labelling.
Benzoates, though naturally occurring in fruit and honey, also happen to be added to soft drinks and other non-alcoholic sparkling beverages. The main purpose of their inclusion as an ingredient is to prevent the growth of yeasts and moulds. Mainly affecting children, benzoates may heighten the effects of asthma and eczema.
Often considered as one of the most deadly food allergies because of its higher rate of anaphylaxis in comparison to other allergies. Interestingly, despite its name, a peanut is actually part of the legume family of foods and grows in the ground as opposed to actual tree nuts, such as almonds or walnuts.
Growing in its diagnoses, the fact that such a small amount of peanut protein can trigger such deadly consequences, in tandem with the likelihood of cross contamination of other foods through label description of “may contain traces”, “processed in a facility that also processes peanuts” and other similar verbiage, it is advisable to entirely avoid products containing such warnings due to the dire consequences.
Common as a garnishing ingredient around the world, as well as a widely used cooking oil, the sesame seed is probably most easily recognisable on the bun of a big, two-pattied, world-famous burger.
The allergies triggered by exposure to sesame can vary in intensity from mild to very severe. As with all ingredients and allergies, carefully inspect the label and avoid consumption or exposure if you are unsure.
From 20 October 2021, Natasha’s Law has been in effect, requiring all food retailers to list every ingredient within a food item – including the seemingly insignificant ones – that are made on-site and prepacked for sale.
The law came into effect as a result of the untimely, unfortunate death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouseas a result of sesame seeds baked directly into the dough of a prepacked baguette sold by a large UK sandwich chain, which had not been labelled adequately.
Divided into two distinct categories – crustacean and mollusk – allergic reactions to shellfish tend to be one of the most consistently deadly. A reaction can be caused by ingesting, touching or inhaling affected water vapours.
An allergy that most do not outgrow or overcome, much like an allergy to fish, it is honestly best to avoid seafood establishments entirely.
Fortunately, labels will contain express text detailing an inclusion of shellfish and restaurants should carry allergen sheets for your viewing.
Be aware that many capsules that contain health supplements – such as joint support formulas – may contain ingredients derived from shellfish.
Though often associated with milder reactions, on rare occasions, soy allergic reactions can be fatal.
More commonly found in babies and infants than older children and adults, a soy allergy can be reasonably avoided by paying attention to ingredients found on product labels.
Soy is commonly used in vegetarian and vegan foods, as well as Asian cuisine staples such as tofu, soy sauce, edamame beans, soy oil and miso.
Interestingly, recent studies have shown their may be a link between those suffering with a dairy allergy potentially also having an allergy to the proteins found in soy.
With a higher anaphylaxis rate than that of milk, egg or wheat allergies, it is highly probable that if you are allergic to one type of tree nut, you are likely to be allergic to others: it is best to avoid them entirely due to the dangers associated with anaphylaxis.
Not normally a stealth ingredient, a tree nut is quite often an explicit ingredient in both labelling and physical appearance of the food under inspection.
Ordinarily found within cakes, cookies, chocolates, cereals and fruit & nut mixes, the labelling will often clearly express the inclusion of tree nuts – such as almonds, brazil nuts, pistachios and walnuts – as part of its base name, for example “banana nut loaf” or “fruit and nut cookie”.
Should you or someone you know be allergic to tree nuts, pay extra attention and exercise caution over various soaps, skin creams, shampoos and hair conditioners as they sometimes contain nutritional nut oils.
Often confused with Celiac disease – an intolerance to gluten – a wheat allergy can cause life-threatening consequences.
In Western countries, wheat is a commonly used ingredient in many food staples – including in healthy, balanced meal plans that include foods like wholegrain pasta, such as the Mediterranean Diet.
As with all allergies, be sure to carefully read the product label or request an allergy sheet for the restaurant dishes menu.
There are many alternative products available for people with wheat allergies, just be sure that those products are based on other ingredients you may also have an allergy to.
wheat-based products, such as breads and pastas.
What to do if someone has an allergic reaction
Here are some quick guides to help you treat an allergic reaction, as well as a quick-step guide to treating an episode of anaphylaxis.
Mild-to-Moderate Level Allergic Reaction
- antihistamines: typically taken orally to treat a mild-to-moderate allergic reaction or as a precaution. Can be administered as a tablet, cream, capsules, liquids, eye drops or nasal sprays
- decongestants: used to treat allergy-based blockages. Can be administered in capsule, liquid, nasal spray or tablet form
- lotions/cream: usually used to combat dry, red and itchy skin. Moisturising creams can protect the skin and keep it moisturised, whilst calamine lotions can alleviate some itchiness, with steroid creams helping to reduce any inflammation
- steroid treatment: used primarily as a way to reduce allergy-induced inflammation, they are available – primarily through prescription via your GP – in cream, drop, inhaler, nasal spray, spray and tablet form, depending on the allergic reaction present.
Though most individuals at high-risk to allergic reactions will carry a special device – an adrenaline auto injector – it is still best practice to understand the situation so that you know how to respond should you be required to intervene.
- Use adrenaline auto injector – ensure you properly administer the dosage correctly, as per instructions
- Call 999 emergency services and request an ambulance – even if the person feels better – ensuring you mention an episode of anaphylaxis
- Remove the allergic trigger when and where possible – for example, removing any fish residue or food from the location
- Lay person down flat – unless unconscious, pregnant or they are having trouble breathing
- Administer another after 5 to 15 minutes – if conditions have not improved and another adrenaline auto injector is available
Constant Awareness is Crucial
Food allergies are becoming increasingly common in the UK and around the world. With education on the subject, you will be able to identify the signs and signals your body gives you in order to pre-emptively act against a potentially fatal episode.
Being cognisant and aware of your own tells will also make you more alert, ready and able to respond to food allergies in other people, too. It is important to be hyper vigilant when handling, preparing and ordering food by reading the label or allergen sheet.
If you are found to be at severe risk, your GP may prescribe you an adrenaline auto injector – an EpiPen or similar – and you are to carry them with you at all times: not only to protect yourself, but to help others potentially save your life.
Concerned you may be suffering from a common food allergy? Contact Midland Health on
0333 772 1999 to consult with a specialist. We provide accessible allergy testing services in Birmingham and Leicester.