Top 10 Most Common Food Allergies

Food allergies are a serious health risk — and they're on the rise in Australia.
November 2, 2019

Food allergies are serious illnesses and can cause varying reactions depending on the severity.

Approximately 2 percent of all adults suffer from a food allergy, 10 percent of infants under one and 4 to 8 percent of children up to five years of age. Many children grow out of their food allergies; however, allergies to tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish or seeds are more often lifelong conditions.

An intolerance is different from an allergy because a food allergy affects the sufferer's immune system, whereas an intolerance is an adverse reaction to a particular type of food. Although they both indicate sensitivity to food, an allergy can be life-threatening while an intolerance is most likely not.

Anyone preparing food, whether in a business or at home, should always practise a high level of food safety. Knowing what goes into each product or dish — and informing those eating the food of all ingredients — is vital to ensuring that people do not become ill (or worse). 

Symptoms of an allergic reaction

The signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction can vary from person to person. An allergic reaction can happen within seconds or minutes after eating and can quickly become life-threatening.

An allergic reaction can involve any or all of the following symptoms:

  • hives, swelling, itching, warmth, redness or rash
  • coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness
  • throat tightness, hoarse voice, swelling of the tongue or airways
  • hay fever-like symptoms (nasal congestion or itchy, runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing)
  • nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting or diarrhoea
  • changes in skin colour (pale / blue colour), weak pulse, dizziness, shock
  • anxiety, headache, uterine cramps or a metallic taste in the mouth
  • drop in blood pressure (causing dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting)

10 most common food allergens in Australia

The following ten foods account for approximately 90 percent of all food allergies:

1. WHEAT

Wheat allergy and coeliac disease are often confused for each other, but they are two separate conditions. A wheat allergy occurs when a person's immune system reacts abnormally to wheat proteins; just the same as any other food allergy, a wheat allergy can cause life-threatening anaphylaxis.  

For people with coeliac 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 diarrhoea, nausea and abdominal pain, and can damage the lining of the small intestine over time. 

Coeliac disease is a serious condition. As a result of damage to the lining of the small intestine, coeliacs may develop other conditions, like anemia, itchy or blistering skin, mouth ulcers, joint pain or reduced spleen function. 

2. PEANUTS

Despite the misleading name, peanuts are actually classified as legumes — not nuts. An allergic reaction to peanuts can happen within minutes or up to several hours after eating foods containing peanuts. Symptoms 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 of peanut or from skin contact. To prevent a life-threatening reaction, Food Handlers must take special care to prevent accidental cross-contamination.

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, and many schools have also completely banned peanuts and the products made from them as a safety precaution.

3. TREE NUTS

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 from very minimal contact with the allergen, so Food Handlers must:

  • be knowledgeable about ingredients in the foods they sell
  • be able to advise customers about foods to avoid
  • be trained to effectively communicate allergy requests to the kitchen, management and other members of staff
  • take all reasonable measures to prevent cross-contamination

Labelling laws for nuts are very strict and you will often see labels that say ‘may contain traces of nuts’ even if nuts are not one of the listed ingredients. 

4. SHELLFISH

Shellfish refers to aquatic shelled animals — especially those that are edible — like molluscs (e.g. oysters, abalone, cockles, octopus, squid) and crustaceans (e.g. lobster, crab, crayfish, prawns, shrimp).

Food Handlers must be very careful to avoid cross-contamination when it comes to shellfish; a tiny amount is often all it takes to cause a severe reaction.

Frequent and thorough hand washing, cleaning and sanitising of equipment and utensils after they touch different types of food, and preparing allergen-free meals separately are extremely important for effective allergy management, as is following safe food handling procedures and informing the customer of any potential risks

Shellfish are common ingredients in Asian soups, sauces and stocks and as flavourings. 

5. EGGS

Eggs are a common allergy-triggering food, particularly in young children. Both the egg white and the yolk can cause an allergic reaction, so Food Handlers should not serve either if a customer notifies of an egg allergy.

Because eggs are used in such a wide variety of products and recipes, it's important that Food Handlers have a good idea of which products often contain them. Of course, they should always follow up with the chef or the manager, or consult the business's food allergen matrix or ingredients list, before confirming or denying the presence of eggs in a particular product. 

Eggs are a common ingredient in baked goods, meringues, custards and other desserts, pasta, dressings and processed foods like pre-made burgers, hot dogs and luncheon meat. 

6. MILK

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 should not be confused with lactose intolerance. Milk allergies are caused by an immune system reaction to proteins in milk products, whereas lactose intolerance results from the body lacking the digestive enzyme, lactase. Those with a cow’s milk allergy may also have allergies to other animal milks like goat or sheep.

People who suffer from a milk allergy may be able to use a milk substitute like almond or soy milk. Avoiding milk altogether is relatively difficult because of the high number of products that contain it. Food Handlers need to be very clear when labelling or informing customers of the ingredients in food products, and must be careful to prevent cross-contamination during food handling. 

7. FISH

Fish allergies are generally allergies to finned fish. Salmon, tuna and halibut are the most common kinds of fish that people are allergic to. 

Fish is commonly used in stocks and dressings, barbecue sauce, bouillabaisse, Caesar salad, Caesar dressing and Worcestershire sauce. Chopped fish products like canned tuna have a high risk of being contaminated with many other types of fish during processing. 

Food Handlers must know all the ingredients in a dish in order to properly inform a customer — or know who to ask. Food Handlers must never guess about ingredients, and must practise a high level of food safety and disclose every ingredient used in a food product to the person who will be eating it. 

8. SOY

Soy allergy is less common than peanut, egg or milk allergies. Allergy to soy is most commonly seen in young children, however sensitisation to soy appears to increase rather than diminish with age.

An allergy to soy / soya refers to soybeans, which are a member of the legume family. This does not necessarily mean that the sufferer will also be allergic to other legumes (e.g. peanuts). Soy has many names — such as bean curd, tamari, tempeh, and tofu — which means that Food Handlers should be checking for alternative names on labels.

Soybeans and other legumes are used widely in cooking; soy milk is often used in coffee businesses and cross-contamination between different types of milk can be dangerous for those with a soy allergy.

9. SESAME SEEDS

Sesame seeds are potent food allergens and are usually a lifelong allergy. Sesame seeds are tiny and it doesn’t take many to cause an allergic reaction.

An allergy to sesame seeds is also particularly difficult to manage, as food labels may not specifically say 'sesame seeds'. Other names may indicate the presence of sesame seeds, such as benne, sim sim, or gingelly seeds.

Ground sesame seeds are used in a multitude of different products and cuisines, such as biscuits, breads, satay sauces and muesli. As with any food allergy, Food Handlers must be sure to properly wash their hands, clean and sanitise utensils and any other equipment or surfaces that come in contact with food, and take all other reasonable precautions to prevent cross-contamination. 

10. LUPIN

Lupin is a legume that is more frequently consumed and used in the Mediterranean, especially in the form of lupin flour. Lupin allergy is an emerging food allergy, with variable prevalence rates in different geographical regions. It is more prevalent in Mediterranean countries and in Australia, and less prevalent in North America and Northern Europe.

Allergic reactions to lupin often occur as a result of ingestion of commercial products containing ‘hidden’ lupin, such as gluten-free pasta products. Some people who are allergic to peanuts may also be allergic to lupin, as there is a high level of cross-reactivity between the two legumes. Be sure to check with a customer who discloses a peanut allergy if foods containing lupin are safe for them to eat. 

Food allergies are an important food safety issue

Food allergies should always be treated very seriously and the utmost care must be taken to ensure the risk of an allergic reaction is minimal. Food businesses must clearly outline all ingredients in their dishes and customers should always inform the business if they have a food allergy.

Food Safety Supervisors are responsible for ensuring that a high level of food safety is maintained in a food business, but food safety is the responsibility of everyone working in the business, including management and Food Handlers. 

Food safety training is the most effective method of ensuring food safety in the business. Food businesses and related organisations have many convenient options for food safety training available to them, including nationally recognised online Food Handler courses and online Food Safety Supervisor courses. 

If your business enrols employees on a regular basis, or multiple employees at the same time, an AIFS Business Account could save you time and hassle. For details about AIFS Business Accounts, contact our support team

 

This public health information was produced and distributed by the Australian Institute of Food Safety Foundation.