With Filipinos’ penchant for eating, it’s frustrating how some of the most delicious foods are off-limits if we have food allergies. Not only do our palates suffer, but we could also be missing out on nutrients that our body needs.
A food allergy is an abnormal response of the immune system to a certain item when ingested. Citing U.S. studies, Michael Manio, M.D.-Ph.D., says around six to eight percent of children five years old and younger have food allergies, against around five percent of adults.
Some children with food allergies outgrow them as their immune system becomes stronger; adults may develop allergies along the way, and may have them for the rest of their lives. The eight most common foods that cause food allergy are shellfish like crabs or lobsters; milk; peanuts; tree nuts such as walnuts or hazelnuts; eggs; soy; wheat; and fish.
Dr. Manio, a medical scientist at the vascular biology unit of the University of Hong Kong and the Queen Mary Hospital Departments of Pharmacology and Pharmacy and of Anaesthesiology, points out that protein is the most common factor in these eight allergy-causing foods.
Allergy vs. intolerance
Dr. Manio cites the need to determine which kinds of food we are actually allergic to, or which ones we can’t tolerate. “Most of the time, we mistake food allergy for food intolerance, which is more [of a digestive problem]. You ate something, and the ingredients, or additives, did not agree with you and caused food intolerance. If digestive tract ang problem, it would trigger diarrhea, nausea or vomiting,” he explains.
Allergic reactions, on the other hand, include itching, particularly in the mouth area; swelling in the tongue and throat, and redness. In some cases, there’s difficulty breathing, abdominal cramps, coughing or wheezing, loss of consciousness, dizziness, or death. Dr. Manio explains that anaphylaxis is a sudden, severe allergic reaction involving various areas of the body simultaneously.
A 2003 Report of the Expert Panel on Food Allergy Research of the U.S.-based National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease identified risk factors linked with food allergy, which include family history of allergy and asthma; genetic predisposition to allergic disease; and being 3 years old and below.
Risk factors associated with fatal or near-fatal anaphylaxis, meanwhile, include a history of food allergy, especially if severe; allergy to peanuts or tree nuts; asthma, typically mild asthma; adolescence or young adulthood; or delay in appropriate treatment.
Dr. Manio explains that in some cases, people develop allergies to certain types of food because of a weakened immune system. “It is very common nowadays that we prepare food in a very hygienic way; gusto natin lahat malinis. Before, children [were] exposed to different kinds of germs, so nasasanay ang immune system to react to different microorganisms or germs [which strengthen the immune system],” he says.
“I’m not saying huwag maging hygienic. When we were younger, sanay tayo maglaro sa kalye, nadudumihan tayo but we’re okay now. Ngayon, ang mga bata nasa bahay lang, playing with the computer; hindi sila exposed to the environment,” Dr. Manio expounds.
Allergies may also be caused by pesticides or insecticides used when harvesting or preparing food.
Dr. Manio advises those who are allergic to certain types of nutritious food to get their dietary components from other foods or to take vitamins instead. “Hindi naman lahat ng pasyente, once allergic sa shellfish, allergic sa iba. If allergic sa milk for instance, [one] can still get vitamin D from other sources of food.”
Allergies may also be pollen-induced. “Some people are allergic to fruits, vegetables and so on. There are patients who are allergic to apples, banana, watermelon, celery [and so on]. We can just try other fruits or take multivitamins to supplement ’yung mga kulang natin sa katawan,” he adds.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, certain types of mild food allergies can be treated with an antihistamine or bronchodilator. Severe or anaphylactic reactions, however, require epinephrine or adrenaline. Dr. Manio stresses that there’s no cure for food allergies at present. The most effective strategy to prevent food allergy is to strictly avoid any food that triggers a reaction.
What to do when food allergies strike? Dr. Manio shares more tips in the July issue of HealthToday. Grab your copy now!