Tips for avoiding common allergens in food

It's estimated that as many as 1.2 million Canadians may be affected by life-threatening food allergies and some studies indicate that these numbers are increasing. Food allergies can affect people of all ages; however, they are particularly common in children.

Peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, soy, seafood, wheat, eggs, milk, mustard and sulphites are the food allergens most commonly associated with severe allergic reactions in Canada and are otherwise known as the priority allergens.

Allergic reactions

Allergens can cause a reaction in your respiratory system, stomach and intestines, skin or cardiovascular system. The symptoms of allergic reactions vary in type and severity, from mild skin irritations and hives to breathing difficulties and loss of consciousness. Symptoms can also develop at different rates, sometimes getting worse very quickly. The most severe reaction, called anaphylaxis, can be fatal.

Food allergies are triggered when your body's immune system mistakenly identifies a food protein to be harmful. Exposure to even the smallest amounts of allergenic protein can cause a serious allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. This is why it's important for you to understand and manage the risks associated with food allergens.

How to avoid allergic reactions

If you have a food allergy, avoiding the ingestion of the allergen is the only effective way to prevent allergic reactions. There are many important steps you can take to help protect yourself. Some general tips include:

1. Read labels carefully

  • Make sure you take the time to read product labels very carefully.
  • Manufacturers sometimes change the ingredients used in familiar products, and different varieties and sizes of the same brand may contain different ingredients, so check the label every time you shop.
  • It is important to consume only products with a list of ingredients and avoid bins of bulk food where ingredients lists may not be available and where there may be a risk of cross-contamination between bins.

2. Watch out for cross-contamination

  • Cross-contamination occurs when an allergen is unintentionally transferred to a food product that doesn't normally contain that allergen.
  • Look for precautionary statements like "may contain X" (where "X" is the name by which the allergen is commonly known).  Such statements are usually related to possible cross-contamination.
  • Precautionary statements indicate that foods could have been unintentionally exposed to an allergen some time during the manufacturing process and aren't safe to eat for those with food allergies.

3. Don't take chances

  • Avoid food products that contain the specific allergens and/or derivatives of the specific allergens that you are allergic to.
  • Avoid food products that bear a precautionary statement naming an allergen that you are allergic to.
  • Avoid food products that don't list their ingredients or food products that contain an ingredient that you don't recognize.
  • When someone else is preparing food for you, whether at a restaurant or a friend's home, make sure they know about your food allergy, so they can take steps to avoid cross-contamination and alert you to any ingredients of concern.
  • Even if a dish doesn't contain the food to which you are allergic, it still might have been in contact with it through utensils and cooking pans. When in doubt, don't eat it.

4. Carry an epinephrine/adrenaline auto-injector device at all times

  • If an allergist prescribes an epinephrine/adrenaline auto-injector, learn how to use it properly and carry it with you at all times. It could save your life.
  • Practice using it every few months and train other family members as well.
  • If it is your child who is affected, teach them how to use the device, and stress the importance of always having it with them.
  • At the cottage, or on a trip, be sure to keep one or more auto-injectors on hand.
  • Use the auto-injector at the earliest sign of a reaction. You must always seek medical attention immediately after the use of an epinephrine auto-injector.
  • Also, always wear a MedicAlert identifier so that, in case of an accident, others know about your allergies and reactions.

5. Look out for allergens listed by other names

  • Food allergens and their derivatives are sometimes found in food under different names.
  • The Government of Canada has developed a series of pamphlets with information on each of the priority food allergens, including lists of other names for each allergen, food and products that may contain them and non-food sources of that allergen.

What the Government of Canada does to keep our food supply safe

The Government of Canada is committed to food safety.

Health Canada establishes regulations and standards relating to the safety and nutritional quality of foods sold in Canada. Through inspection and enforcement activities, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency verifies that food sold in Canada meets Health Canada's requirements.

For more information on food safety, please visit the Government of Canada's Food Safety Portal and the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education's Be Food Safe Canada program.

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