It is estimated that one in every 13 children in the U.S. has a food allergy. Food allergy reactions can range from a rash to respiratory distress and even death. The uncertainty of how a child will react when exposed to food allergens is a great concern for parents.
"It is impossible to know how a child will react to a food allergen. Just because they had a mild reaction before doesn't mean it won't be more severe the next time," said Joyce Rabbat, MD, medical director of the Pediatric Allergy Division at Loyola University Health System and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Division of Allergy and Immunology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
Rabbat says that avoiding the allergen is extremely important for a child with a food allergy and reading food labels is crucial for keeping the child safe.
"Avoidance is the mainstay of treatment. For a child who is allergic, ingesting even a small amount of the allergen could result in an allergic reaction. This is why becoming familiar with what to recognize on food labels is of utmost importance," said Dr. Rabbat.
Though a 2004 law mandated that food labels list major fool allergens, not all possible allergens need to be listed. The only food allergens that must be listed are milk, eggs, soybean, wheat, peanut, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
"Any food not on the list does not have to be listed on food labels. In addition, manufacturers are not required to list possible cross-contact or cross-contamination of the food with allergens. Many will print these potential cross contaminates, though this is not required by law. It is important for parents to be vigilant," said Dr. Rabbat.
Dr. Rabbat also notes that ingredients usually are listed in order of quantity.
"The first few ingredients are the main ingredients represented in higher quantities. This is important because every child has a threshold of reactivity; in select cases, patients may tolerate small quantities of the food. But if too much is ingested, they may react. It's important to discuss food allergen avoidance with your allergist, to determine what is safe for an individual to eat, and what to avoid."
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