Questions and answers about allergies and allergens

What are main allergens?

There are 14 foods that trigger an allergic reaction in Europeans particularly frequently. To make it easier to guide the consumer with an existing allergy so they can avoid the relevant food, there has been an EU-wide food labelling regulation in place since 2005 that makes it a requirement to label these ingredients in packaged goods. Even small amounts of these major allergens must be specified on the packaging, if they are included in the ingredients. There are no exceptions.

Ingredients that are subject to labelling are cereals that contain gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts, soybeans, milk (milk protein, lactose), nuts, celery, mustard, sesame, sulphur dioxide and sulphides, and, since the end of 2008, lupin and molluscs (e.g. snails) and products made from these.

Not only the raw ingredients, but also pre-processed products made from these allergens must be specified. So now it has to be specified whether the starch in biscuits comes from wheat or whether the lecithin in chocolate is manufactured from soybeans or from eggs.

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What is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?

The terms food allergy and food intolerance are often used to mean the same thing, so it is important to clearly differentiate an allergy from an intolerance. With an intolerance, the symptoms arise not through an overreaction of the immune system, but, for example, as a result of food ingredients or particular additives. 

Food allergy

An allergy describes an exaggerated reaction of the immune system to foreign matter, which actually poses no threat to the body. Rather harmless foreign matter (for example, the protein in cow's milk) is classed by the body as being dangerous. The immune system creates specific antibodies to protect against this apparent foreign matter. This therefore becomes an allergy trigger.

There are many inflammatory responses that  trigger physical problems in those affected. Symptoms range from nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, circulatory collapse, asthma, inflammation of the eyes and nasal mucous membranes, itching and redness of the skin, to atopic eczema and inflammations. The reaction is not triggered by whole foodstuffs, but by the protein components (e.g. soya protein, cow's milk protein).

The degree of severity varies by allergen. Nut and peanut allergies can produce strong allergic reactions even in infancy.
In this case, those affected and their families have to adhere to a strict diet.

Food intolerance
With a food intolerance the body is not able to absorb and process particular substances. This can be caused in various ways. Generally the intolerance reactions can be attributed to enzyme disorders, which are responsible for breaking down or absorbing specific food substances.

The enzyme deficiency or defect can either be innate or acquired. Food intolerances include, among others, intolerance to gluten, lactose, fructose, sorbitol, and histamine intolerance. The symptoms mainly manifest themselves as physical problems in the gastro-intestinal tract such as stomach pains, nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, although itching, redness and puffiness can also occur.

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