Food allergies: When food becomes the enemy

An estimated 5 to 6 percent of children and 3 to 4 percent of adults in Canada suffer from food allergies. These allergies usually manifest in early childhood, when the child is being exposed to new foods. Some allergies may disappear over time, which explains why they aren’t as common among adults as they are in children. Many allergies last for the person’s whole life, however.

An estimated 5 to 6 percent of children and 3 to 4 percent of adults in Canada suffer from food allergies. These allergies usually manifest in early childhood, when the child is being exposed to new foods. Some allergies may disappear over time, which explains why they aren’t as common among adults as they are in children. Many allergies last for the person’s whole life, however.

Allergy or intolerance?

Food allergies occur when the immune system falsely believes that a substance contained in a food (usually a protein) poses a threat to the body and must therefore be eliminated. By trying to get rid of the intruder (called an “allergen”), the immune system triggers various reactions that lead to the secretion of massive amounts of a substance called histamine. The histamine causes the symptoms typical of an allergic reaction, such as itching, facial redness, and swelling of the mouth or throat.

Intolerance, on the other hand, does not involve the immune system. It is a phenomenon that mainly involves digestion-related symptoms (e.g. bloating, diarrhea). While they are bothersome and may require dietary changes, food intolerances are not as serious as food allergies.

Which foods can cause allergies?

In theory, any food could be perceived as an invader by the immune system and cause an allergic reaction, but in reality, only a small group of foods cause the vast majority of serious food allergies. In Canada, the following foods and substances are considered the most common sources of allergy:


- Peanuts, nuts (e.g. almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews) and sesame seeds
- Soy
- Milk
- Wheat
- Eggs
- Seafood (including fish and shellfish)
- Mustard
- Sulfites

Total avoidance is the only solution!

Since there is no treatment to cure food allergies, it is imperative that people with food allergies do everything in their power to avoid coming in contact with their particular allergens. In some cases, contact with even a tiny amount of allergen can trigger a severe and potentially fatal reaction. Food allergies can greatly complicate the lives of families because some of these foods are used widely in our diet. Thankfully, some allergies disappear over time; for example, it is estimated that three-quarters of milk and wheat allergies resolve by age 5, and 80 percent of milk allergies disappear by age 7. Use caution, however – only an allergist can determine whether an allergy has been outgrown.

Learning to read the nutrition labels

Nutrition labels are your ally when it comes to choosing safe foods, but first you must know how to decipher them. The task has been made simpler thanks to new food allergen labelling regulations implemented by Heath Canada. Food manufacturers must now state on their nutrition labels whether their products contain any of the allergens specified by Health Canada. They can do so by listing the allergen in the ingredient list if it is a main ingredient, or by adding a “Contains…” or “May contain…” notice directly under the list of ingredients. Manufacturers must also use everyday vocabulary that can be easily understood by any consumer.

CAC certification

Another way to determine whether a food is safe is to look for the Certified Allergen Control (CAC) program logo. This program, which is run by the Association québécoise des allergies alimentaires, uses the logo to certify that a food does not contain one or more of the allergens targeted by the program. The program currently only includes peanuts, almonds, eggs and milk because there are reliable tests to detect these allergens. For other allergens, consumers must rely on the nutrition label or contact the manufacturer. Sometimes, refraining from eating a certain product is the only solution if it is impossible to reliably determine whether the food contains an allergen.

Young people and food allergies

Teens and young adults with food allergies are the group with the highest risk of having a severe reaction. At that age, young people are no longer under their parents’ constant supervision, and they increasingly eat outside the family circle. It is therefore important for them to understand the risks involved and that they always carry an epinephrine injection device with them. In this age group in particular, it is prudent to have at least two of these devices, but getting them to carry just one may already be a battle with some teens.

What if an allergic reaction does occur?

If a reaction occurs despite your best efforts, inject the epinephrine as soon as the first symptoms appear. Do not wait to see “if it gets any worse” because the more the reaction progresses, the harder it can become to treat. There is no risk in injecting the adrenaline, but there is in waiting to do so! Inject the adrenaline first and then call emergency services, or ask someone to make the call while you proceed with the injection. Lastly, even if the symptoms disappear after the injection, it’s important to always go to the hospital emergency and be seen by a doctor, because symptoms can return in the hours following a reaction.

In conclusion

If you or a loved one suffer from a food allergy, consulting a nutritionist can help you better identify the foods that are safe to eat, while ensuring that you maintain a balanced diet. Also make sure to have at least one epinephrine injection device on hand at all times. For information on how to use the device, don’t hesitate to speak to your pharmacist.

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