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Understanding Allergies

Food allergies are a growing public health issue. Allergic reactions to food can occur with little warning and can be very serious. According to Health Canada, approximately 2.5 million Canadians, or about 7 percent of the population self-report having a food allergy. A recent study also reported about 5-10 percent of the elderly population has food allergies. A food allergy can begin at any age, and they affect children and adults of all races and ethnicities. Some children do outgrow their food allergy to milk, soy and egg within a few years. However, allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are more likely to last to adulthood. Allergies have also been known to make their initial appearance in older adults. And this is something to keep in mind within your facilities.

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is an abnormal response to a food that is triggered by the body’s immune system. The immune system, which normally protects against illness, wrongly identifies a harmless food protein as an invader and attacks it. That protein then becomes an allergen for that person. The next time a person eats that particular food protein, their body undergoes an immune response that causes a range of allergic symptoms. Allergic reactions can vary in type and severity ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms can include stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath. It is important to keep in mind that symptoms can be different from person to person and change from reaction to reaction in the same person. Most reactions do occur within minutes of exposure to an allergen. Even the smallest amount of a food can cause an allergic reaction in a person with food allergies. 

Most common food allergens

Health Canada has identified 10 categories of foods that cause majority of allergic reactions in Canadians. These food groups are known as Priority Food Allergens. The most common food allergens in Canada include: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, sesame, mustard, sulphites, and seafood (fish, shellfish and crustaceans). Although these food categories cause 90 percent of all reactions, it is important to keep in mind that this is not a complete list. Any food can trigger an allergic reaction. There is no cure for food allergies. Avoiding an allergen is the best way to prevent allergic reactions. Early recognition and management are key to helping keep residents with food allergies safe.

Strategies to help manage food allergies in your facility

  • Before building your menu, it is important to clearly define each therapeutic diet that will be available in your facility. For example, will you offer a gluten-free or a gluten restricted menu? After each diet is clearly outlined, you want to communicate this information to staff, residents and potential residents, and their families to help minimize the risk of an allergic reaction.
  • Help increase understanding of food allergies among your food service staff by providing food safety training courses. These courses often review how to read food labels on products, including allergen information.
  • An important way to prevent allergic reactions is to make sure that allergens are not unintentionally transferred from one food to another through cross-contamination. Ensure procedures are in place for staff to follow regarding cross-contamination and cleanliness in the kitchen and serving areas.
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