Food allergies are a serious and prevalent health risk. According to Food Allergy Canada, more than 3 million Canadians self-report having at least one food allergy. Many children grow out of their food allergies; however, allergies to tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish or seeds are more often lifelong conditions. It is also possible to develop an allergy – or a food intolerance – as an adult.
A food allergy is different from a food intolerance in that an allergy affects the sufferer’s immune system, whereas an intolerance is a chemical reaction to a particular type of food, often in the digestive system. Although they both indicate sensitivity to food, an allergy can be life-threatening while an intolerance is most likely not.
An allergic reaction can involve any or all of the following symptoms:
- Hives, swelling, itching, warming of the skin, redness or rash
- Throat tightness, hoarse voice, swelling of the tongue or airways
- Nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting or diarrhea
- Coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness or pain in the chest
- Hay fever-like symptoms (nasal congestion or itchy, runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing)
- Anxiety, headache, uterine cramps or a metallic taste in the mouth
- Changes in skin colour (pale / blue colour), weak pulse, dizziness, shock
- Drop in blood pressure (causing dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting)
Anyone handling food in a food business has a legal and moral responsibility to protect anyone with a food allergy. This includes preventing cross contamination, knowing what goes into each product or dish, and informing those eating the food of all relevant ingredients.
Canada’s most common food allergens
People can be allergic to just about any food, but there are some that are most frequently associated with severe allergic reactions. As a result, they are considered priority allergens and are subject to enhanced labeling regulations.
In Canada, there are 11 priority food allergens:
Eggs are a common allergy-triggering food, particularly in young children. Eggs are a common ingredient in pasta, dressings, baked goods, meringues, custards and other desserts, and processed foods like pre-made hot-dogs, burgers, and luncheon meats. Both the egg white and the yolk can cause an allergic reaction.
Because eggs are used in such a wide variety of products and recipes, it's important that Food Handlers thoroughly check ingredient listings, and follow up with the chef or manager, or check the business’s food allergen matrix or ingredients list before confirming or denying the presence of eggs in a particular product.
WHEAT AND TRITICALE
A wheat allergy occurs when a person's immune system reacts abnormally to wheat proteins. Like other food allergies, a wheat allergy can cause life-threatening anaphylaxis. Wheat is often found in breads and baked goods, cereal, beer, batter-fried foods, and many sauces and seasonings.
Triticale is a grain hybrid created by crossing wheat and rye. Although not commonly available commercially, people with wheat allergy are advised to avoid triticale as well.
A note about wheat allergy vs. celiac disease
Wheat allergy and celiac disease are often confused for each other, but they are two different conditions. For people with celiac disease, eating gluten – a type of protein found in grains like wheat, rye and barley – triggers an immune response in the small intestine, which causes uncomfortable symptoms like diarrhea, nausea and abdominal pain, and can damage the lining of the small intestine over time. Celiac disease is a serious condition. As a result of damage to the lining of the small intestine, celiac sufferers may develop other conditions, like anemia, itchy or blistering skin, mouth ulcers, joint pain or reduced spleen function.
Despite their name, peanuts are classified as legumes, not nuts. An allergic reaction to peanuts can happen within minutes or up to several hours after eating foods containing peanuts.
Common peanut ingredients in commercial kitchens include peanut oil, peanut butter, and raw or roasted whole nuts. Labelling laws for peanuts are very strict, including "may contain" statements. Many schools have completely banned peanuts and products made from them as a safety precaution.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction to peanuts vary from person to person, and may progress from mild to severe. Severe reactions to peanuts can occur after very minimal contact, such as ingestion of trace amounts or from skin contact.
Tree nuts, or simply “nuts”, are one of the most common food allergies worldwide. Tree nuts include almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, chestnuts and walnuts.
As with peanuts, tree nuts can cause severe allergic reactions even from very minimal contact with the allergen.
Foods or products that often contain tree nuts include baked goods, granola bars, marzipan (which is almond paste), pralines and cocoa-based and/or nut-based spreads. Vegetarian dishes, dairy-free imitation cheese, and nougat also frequently contain or may contain nuts.
As many of these examples may be components of ingredients, it is once again very important for Food Handlers to have thorough knowledge of the foods being served.
An allergy to milk is one of the more frequent food allergies worldwide and is reportedly the highest cause of food allergy in infants.
Milk allergies are caused by an immune system reaction to proteins in milk products. Often, a milk allergy is confused with lactose intolerance; however, the latter is a different condition. Lactose intolerance results from the body lacking the digestive enzyme, lactase.
People who suffer from an allergy to cow’s milk may also have allergies to other animal milks like goat or sheep; however, milk substitutes like almond or soy milk may be good alternatives. Products or foods that may contain milk or milk products include chocolate, salad dressings, cheeses (including soy-based cheese), deli meat and desserts such as ice cream or sherbet.
If one is allergic to fish, it’s generally to finned fish like salmon, tuna and halibut. In North America, fish allergies are more common in adults, while in other countries where fish is more of a dietary staple, allergies are common amongst both adults and children.
Fish is commonly used in stocks and dressings, gelatin, barbecue sauce, bouillabaisse, Caesar salad, Caesar dressing and Worcestershire sauce. Other examples of fish and fish derivatives include caviar and roe (fish eggs), imitation crab, and surimi. Canned tuna and other chopped fish products have a high risk of contamination with many other types of fish during processing, so as with all allergens, it’s very important that Food Handlers check labels and make themselves aware of any potential risk.
CRUSTACEANS AND MOLLUSCS
Sometimes collectively referred to as shellfish, crustaceans and molluscs are aquatic shelled animals, many of which are edible. Examples of molluscs include abalone, cockles, octopus, oysters, mussels and squid. Crustaceans include crab, lobster, crayfish, prawns and shrimp.
Crustaceans and molluscs are common ingredients in soups, sauces and stocks, and are frequently used as flavourings. Crustaceans and molluscs can also be found in combination foods, like paella, sushi, and spring rolls.
People with these allergies can experience allergic reactions without even consuming these foods directly; there have been reports that exposure to the proteins through the cooking process, like the steam from boiling shellfish, has been enough to trigger an allergic reaction.
An allergy to soy/soya refers to soybeans, which are a member of the legume family. Being allergic to soy does not necessarily mean that the sufferer will also be allergic to other legumes (like peanuts). Soy and its derivatives have many different names, including bean curd, tamari, yuba, tempeh, and tofu, which means Food Handlers should be extra diligent in checking for alternative names on food labels.
Soybeans and other legumes are used widely in cooking. Soy is often found in bread crumbs and breaded foods, taco fillings and tamales, meat products with fillers, and imitation dairy, like soy milk often used in coffee businesses.
Sesame seeds are potent food allergens and usually cause a lifelong allergy. Sesame seeds are tiny, and it doesn’t take many to cause an allergic reaction.
Sesame seeds are used in a multitude of cuisines and in many different products, such as breads, oils, biscuits, satay sauces and muesli. Sesame can also be found in vegetarian burgers, tempeh, granola bars and protein bars.
Some products have used alternate names for sesame on labels, including benne, tahini, gingelly seeds or sim sim. However, according to the enhanced labelling requirements for food allergens present today, those names are not permitted without the word sesame also appearing on the label. That said, Food Handlers should still check ingredient listings thoroughly and be on the lookout for such alternative names for sesame seeds.
Mustard belongs to the Brassicaceae family, which also includes broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, turnips and canola, as well as certain varieties of Brassica napus and Brassica rapa, which may be sold as rapeseed oil.
Other than prepared jars of mustard, mustard is frequently found in foods such as condiments, salad dressings, curries and chutneys, pickles and other pickled products, dehydrated soups, and potato salad. Most canola and rapeseed oils are highly refined and do not contain appreciable amounts of mustard protein, meaning they are unlikely to cause an allergic reaction, but cold-pressed canola and rapeseed oils may contain residual protein.
Sulphites are added to food as preservatives and they are also used in the production of some foods and food packaging. They can also naturally occur in some foods and the human body. For the majority of people, sulfites are safe to consume, but for those with a sensitivity to sulfites, an allergy-like reaction can occur. Sulphites can also trigger asthma, and in rare cases, even cause anaphylaxis.
Some examples of products that commonly contain sulphites include dried herbs, spices and teas, fruit fillings and syrups, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beer and cider, vinegar, and tomato pastes, pulps, and purees.
It’s important to note that each of the above food lists are not exhaustive. Food Handlers must regularly check ingredient listings and ensure that they understand what each ingredient name contains when preparing a meal for customers with food allergies.
Food safety training is the most effective method of ensuring allergen and overall food safety in a business. CIFS offers many different training options. Visit the courses page or contact us today to learn more about how CIFS courses can help keep your food business and your customers safe.