Allergy and intolerance
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Allergy and intolerance

There is a general consensus that allergic reactions are increasing in the developed world. However, there are few precise statistics, and a general confusion about what an allergy actually is.

Strictly speaking, an allergy is a condition caused by an abnormal reaction of the body’s immune system to particular protein molecules. These protein molecules are found in pollen and house dust and are also naturally present in certain foods. Other components of food can trigger abnormal reactions unrelated to the immune system, though this is less common.

The largest causes of allergic reactions by far are pollen and house dust mites, with about a fifth of the population being affected in developed countries.

Less than 2% of the population experience general adverse reactions to foods – and 90% of all the problems come from just eight foodstuffs: nuts, including peanuts, nuts from trees such as walnuts and pecans, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soya and wheat.

The figure for additives is far lower – in fact, you are between 10 and 100 times more likely to suffer a reaction to a natural foodstuff than an additive.

The foods and ingredients most likely to trigger adverse reactions in susceptible people have now been identified, and EU regulations require them to be listed clearly on food labels. The twelve allergens listed in the regulations include eleven common foods (the ‘big eight‘ above plus mustard, celery, sesame seeds) and one food additive (sulphite).

For more information about some of the additives commonly thought to cause allergy or intolerance, click on the links below.

Sulphites and benzoates (in the E-Numbers page Preservatives)
Monosodium glutamate (see Flavour Enhancers)
Artificial colours (see Colours)

To help you separate fact from fiction, and understand the differences between a food allergy and an intolerance, NHS Direct has compiled a ‘myth-buster’. Try it from here.

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