Peanuts, wheat and egg are among several allergens that continue to be a global public health issue, and so industry must act with caution when developing allergen-free products, warns a scientific expert.
The ‘big eight’ food allergens – cows’ milk, tree nuts, peanut, egg, soybean, fish, shellfish and wheat – remain a significant problem for adults and children across the world. Estimates indicate that 6-5% of children and 3-4% of adults have some sort of food allergy and incident rates appear to be on the rise.
Joe Baumert, co-director of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said this meant manufacturers had to develop allergen-free products with more caution than ever.
“When marketing allergen-free foods, the food industry has very little room for intolerance, because these symptoms can be quite substantial…There’s no treatment yet, other than avoidance,” he told attendees at an educational program on allergen-free foods at IFT 2014.
Symptoms, he said, were often severe - from skin reactions to intestinal and respiratory complications, and even cardiovascular issues and anaphylactic shock.
Deaths are preventable
Each year, there were between 100-150 deaths in the US associated with food allergies, he said, along with around 50,000 anaphylactic reactions; 2,000 of which caused hospitalization.
“Needless to say, I think it’s preventable, so we have to do what we can so we don’t have any deaths occurring,” he said.
“The company really has to sit down and decide what they mean by allergen-free. Is it specifically peanut-free, or allergen-free from the ‘big eight’ sense?”
The challenge, however, was truly monitoring and validating an entire production chain, from ingredients supply to processing and packing facilities, Baumert said.
Communication with suppliers was critical, he said. “It becomes important to audit and have a good dialogue with that supplier; find out – do they have a documented allergen control program and guarantee? If so, what constitutes that? Do they check their suppliers?”
Importantly, he said any changes to supply had to be communicated immediately to the manufacturer.
The rise and rise of allergies
For children, Baumert said the primary allergen offenders were milk, egg and peanuts and adults tended to be allergic to peanuts, treenuts and shellfish.
The increase of incidences, he said, could be pinpointed to a number of factors.
Increased exposure, for example, or changes to processing could have contributed to the increase, he said. It could also be that diagnostics were better and consumer awareness stronger, he added.
“It seems there’s a legitimate increase but we don’t know what’s triggering it exactly. Likely, it’s multifactorial.”