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What is a Food Allergy?

Food allergies have been getting a lot of attention lately. But what actually happens inside the body when someone is allergic to certain foods? Understanding food allergies can help you prepare safe food for your customers.

Immune System
To understand food allergies, you need to understand the basics of our immune systems. As we go about our lives, germs enter our bodies. There are good germs and bad germs, so the body must be able to identify which is which. Antibodies, which are small protein molecules created by the immune system, will attach to the germs and act like identification tags. The immune system can then read these tags and know which germs are bad.

The body is very good at remembering substances it has tagged as harmful, and will tag them as bad whenever it finds it. Unfortunately, sometimes the body will accidentally tag molecules as harmful when they aren’t. We still don’t know why this happens, but it is fairly common. Many people have allergies to dust, pollen, and pet dander. Even though these things are completely harmless, the body believes they are dangerous and reacts as such. This can also happen with foods.

Food Proteins
As we eat and digest food, it breaks down into smaller molecules. Sometimes, the immune system will accidentally tag a food particle as dangerous and the body will try to destroy it. This is what we call a food allergy. The eight most common food allergies are to wheat, eggs, dairy, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. Even though these foods are completely harmless, the body reacts as though they are dangerous. A true food allergy can’t be cured because the immune system remembers and will always tag these foods as harmful.

Reaction
If you knew there was a dangerous animal in a room with a bunch of other people, what would you do? Hopefully, you’d try to alert them that there was danger! The immune system does the same thing when it believes there is something dangerous in your body. Once it realizes that something has been tagged as harmful, it starts to release histamine. Histamine makes you sneeze, tear up, itch, turn red, or whatever it takes to let you know something is wrong, and to remove the allergen out of your body. This is often referred to as an overreaction of your body’s immune system.

Actually experiencing an allergic reaction is a very scary experience. Remember that if someone has an allergy, the symptoms can be different every time they have a reaction. Just because one reaction wasn’t severe doesn’t mean that another one can’t be life threatening. The scariest symptom of an allergy is called anaphylactic shock. The immune system floods the body with chemicals in reaction to the allergen, and this can lead to anaphylactic shock. Possible symptoms of anaphylactic shock include nausea, vomiting, a weak and rapid pulse, swollen tongue or lips, or difficulty breathing. If anaphylaxis is not treated, it can lead to permanent damage and death.

Prevention
The only real way to completely stop an allergic reaction from happening is by preventing it in the first place. A true food allergy will always affect the person and could be potentially life threatening. As a food worker, you can prevent these allergic reactions. When a customer informs you that they have a food allergy, take it seriously! There are many ways to handle orders from customers with allergies. In general, communication is the key. Everyone involved in the preparation of the customer’s meal needs to know about the allergy. In particular, it is very important for the server to communicate with the cooks about the order. If the people who are assembling the meal don’t know about the allergy, chances are much higher that the meal will come into contact with the allergen.

Getting Started
If you are just starting up, or don’t have an allergen management plan, consider these food allergen management tips to get started. It is much easier to make a plan to prevent allergic reactions than to deal with one. Preventing allergic reactions at your establishment may sound daunting, but if you educate yourself, it is easy to keep your customers safe. People who have food allergies are very happy when they are taken seriously and they can eat their meal in safety. They will remember food establishments that helped them feel comfortable and will most likely return. Treating your customers right will keep them coming back!

As always, our courses are a great way to learn about food safety, including how to handle food allergens with our course on Food Allergens Essentials.

Kylie Molen

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