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Food Allergies: When The Menu Becomes An Ordeal

Eating out or buying prepared food can be a big dilemma for people with food allergies. Even more so, if the problem is not one, but several foods.

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LatinAmerican Post | María Fernanda Camisay

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Leer en español: Alergias alimentarias: cuando el menú se convierte en un calvario

It's a fact: food is an essential part of our daily lives. Like any living being, we need to eat to survive and stay healthy. A statement shared by several, although not entirely true. What if the food we know and enjoy is not as harmless as we think? Or worse still, if a simple bite fuels potentially serious sensations, even fatal?

In the 21st century, we speak of food allergies as a silent but latent pandemic. A condition on the rise that makes no distinction of gender, ethnicity, age or geographical area. According to the World Allergy Organization (WAO), it is estimated that between 220-520 million individuals worldwide suffer from some type of food allergy.

On-demand challenges

From the time we are born until the end of our days, we are in contact with substances totally foreign to our body. We can inhale them, digest them or absorb them through the skin. Its clinical presentations can be varied. In this sense, recognizing what the harmful agents are and neutralizing them, if necessary, are tasks of the immune system that patrols our body tirelessly in search of potential threats. However, this mechanism is not perfect and can sometimes get out of control, overreacting to elements that are harmless to most people. The WAO defines it as allergy or hypersensitivity.

In the particular case of food allergies, our immune system responds adversely to one or more food components that it interprets as foreign and dangerous. These substances called allergens activate the alert signals of our defenses and trigger unwanted symptoms. Currently, scientists have identified about 170 food products that cause allergic reactions. However, most reported episodes are concentrated in a small number of them: eggs, milk, peanuts, nuts, fish, crustaceans, wheat and soybeans.

Although the first contact with allergens does not trigger symptoms, it does not go unnoticed at all. In effect, this encounter sensitizes the body, leaving a stamp on the immunological memory that becomes relevant in possible ingestions with increasingly rapid and intense physical manifestations. If we consume these foods again we can suffer from certain complications such as itching in the mouth, hives on the body, difficulty breathing, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea or in the most severe cases, anaphylaxis.

For the WAO, being aware of the products to which we are allergic is the first step in preventing the symptoms caused by this condition. Especially, this implies reading and paying attention to food labels before consuming them to ensure that they do not have ingredients that cause us problems.

Now, this is just the tip of the iceberg of a much broader medical condition.

Dangerous crossings

In the same way that a person manifests an allergic reaction with foods that he knows and once tasted, he is also capable of experiencing it with other unknown substances. Sensitive to latex and avocado? Upset with peanuts and beans? These are some of the typical issues that health specialists face daily when evaluating patients with a history or signs of food allergies.

According to an article published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 2021, the diagnosis and treatment of these diseases are made difficult by the large number of common allergens that are present both in the food we eat and in the environment that surrounds us. surrounds. And it is that, certainly, the more similar these elements are, the greater the probability that our immune system will be confused and sometimes react indistinctly, whatever the factor.

Milk, pollens, fruits, legumes, vegetables or natural resins such as latex are examples of the agents that trigger the phenomenon of reactivity or cross-allergy. This peculiar type of allergic reaction normally occurs with families of plant-based proteins, with the pollen-fruit syndrome being the most characteristic case. As its name indicates, cross-reactivity occurs when some of the substances contained in pollen and in certain fruits (also including vegetables and nuts) are recognized by our immune system as the same factor. For this reason, individuals sensitized to pollen can develop allergies to different foods.

Also read: Respiratory Allergies, Asthma and Rhinitis Increase Due to Climate Change

In short, there are several natural patterns of cross-reactivity found in clinical practice. In this regard, an article in Nutrients magazine from last year highlights that sensitization to multiple substances is highly prevalent in allergic patients. And although he notes that this incidence depends on the population under study, he also highlights that individuals tend to acquire new sources of sensitivity as the years go by.

In this regard, the WAO clarifies that widespread sensitization to various foods does not necessarily mean their clinical expression. Allergy is a complex biological response that not only involves the recognition of a given substance, but also the display of a set of signals that progress into symptoms after exposure . From what has been said above, it is understood that a patient with positive results for sensitization to certain foods can tolerate them without any inconvenience.

In any case, it is essential to be attentive to any indication or sign of discomfort when we eat (hives on the skin, inflammation, weakness, difficulty breathing) and when in doubt, see a specialist for a proper diagnosis. There are several methods of evaluating food allergy, including skin tests, clinical tests and oral challenges , and according to the WAO, more than one is needed to reach an accurate diagnosis and guide the best treatment. In the absence of a definitive cure, a personalized diet and tailored medication, if appropriate, are key elements to keep the allergy under control and enjoy a full life.