What is the most common food allergy?

What is the most common food allergy?

Medically reviewed on February 9, 2022 by Alyssa Clement. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Food allergies affect over 32 million Americans. About 1 in 13 children have a food allergy [5]. Food allergies can have an immense impact on your quality of life and general health. Severe allergic reactions can result in anaphylaxis and potential death.

With food allergies so prevalent, you might be wondering, “What is the most common food allergy?” Medical professionals say there are actually a handful of food allergen culprits that are more common in human populations. Learn more about these foods and the symptoms to look for in food allergies.

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What Are the Most Common Food Allergies?

The most common foods that trigger allergic reactions are:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Legumes, like peanuts and soybeans
  • Tree nuts, including walnuts, almonds, and cashews,
  • Fish, such as cod, bass, and flounder
  • Shellfish, including lobster, crab, and shrimp
  • Wheat [3]

Understanding Food Allergies

When you have an allergy, your body’s immune system has trouble making that distinction. With a food allergy, your immune system identifies specific food proteins as threats. The immune system jumps into action, releasing cells that attack the otherwise harmless food protein. The most common of these is an antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE), though other immune cells can contribute to allergic reactions. IgE releases a chemical called histamine into the bloodstream, which can then contribute to allergy symptoms [4].

Symptoms of Food Allergies

In the process of attacking the food proteins, your immune system can cause a whole cascade of effects. The symptoms of a food allergy can vary from mild to severe, and they can affect different parts of your body simultaneously. Symptoms typically develop quickly within a few minutes of exposure to the offending food, though some people may not see symptoms for up to two hours. Where food intolerances and food allergies differ is that a food allergy reaction involves an immune response (and often severer and potentially life-threatening symptoms) while a food intolerance results when specific enzymes in the body don’t function properly.

The most common food allergy symptoms include:

  • Hives, itchy rash, or eczema
  • An itching, tingling sensation in the mouth, throat, or ears
  • Swelling in the face, lips, tongue, and other parts of the body
  • Nasal congestion, wheezing, and general trouble breathing
  • Digestive symptoms, like abdominal cramps, diarrhea, bloating, nausea, or vomiting
  • Feeling faint or lightheaded [3]

A wide range of allergens can lead to symptoms in an individual. Whether you suffer from a fish allergy, egg allergy, tree nut allergy, or soy allergy, all of these common ingredients can lead to severe symptoms in some individuals [4]. Depending on your allergy and the amount of exposure, you may also experience anaphylaxis. This is a severe reaction that can lead to serious, life-threatening symptoms, including:

  • Tightening and constriction in the airways
  • Swelling in the throat can make breathing difficult
  • A severe sudden drop in blood pressure, leading to shock
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness or loss of consciousness [3]

Anaphylaxis requires immediate treatment. Without treatment, anaphylaxis can potentially lead to a coma or death [3].

Understanding Food Allergies and Sensitivities

It’s important to understand that food allergies are different from food sensitivities. They may have some small overlap, but they are entirely different in both mechanisms and symptoms.

Food sensitivities still require further research, but most studies suggest that food sensitivities come from an autoimmune response resulting in the release of antibodies known as immunoglobulin G (IgG). This most often results in gastrointestinal issues, including diarrhea, gas, bloating, and cramping. Some people with food sensitivities may also experience headaches or migraines [6].

Food sensitivities can undoubtedly have an impact on your quality of life, and they can contribute to a great deal of discomfort and pain. However, they generally aren’t as severe or life-threatening as food allergies [4].

Food sensitivities, for example, require actual consumption of the offending food substance, and many people with these sensitivities can consume small amounts of the food without experiencing any issues. It can sometimes take a few days for symptoms to appear [6]. If you suspect you are sensitive to food, try out the Everlywell Food Sensitivity Test in the comforts of your own home.

Food allergies, on the other hand, don’t require direct consumption. Simply touching the offending food or breathing in food particles can trigger a reaction. The allergic reaction will also always happen, regardless of the amount of food that you make contact with.

Understanding the Most Common Food Allergies

Now that you know the most common food allergies, it’s worth understanding the components within each food that can trigger an allergic reaction.

1. Milk

Studies suggest that allergies to cow’s milk affect 2 to 6 percent of kids, though most children outgrow this by childhood. The two main allergens in milk are casein and whey proteins (commonly alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin) [7].

Both of these proteins are found in milk from other mammals, so substituting with goat milk or other animal-based milk isn’t usually successful. These proteins also remain present when milk is used in other food products, like baked goods, seasonings, and chocolate. However, the plethora of plant-based milk offers a wealth of alternatives [7].

Milk allergies are different from lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is characterized by a lack of lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the milk sugar lactose. Without lactase, you are unable to properly digest dairy, resulting in digestive problems.

2. Eggs

Like milk allergies, egg allergies are common in children and usually get outgrown. The proteins involved with egg allergies are more typically located in the albumen (egg whites). This includes:

  • Ovalbumin
  • Ovomucoid
  • Ovotransferrin
  • Lysozome [8]

Proteins in egg yolks infrequently trigger allergic reactions. Furthermore, the allergens in egg whites stay fairly consistent even after heating or cooking. As egg proteins are similar in all bird species, most people who are allergic to chicken eggs also tend to be allergic to eggs from other bird species [8].

3. Legumes

A legume refers to a type of plant that bears its fruit in the form of a pod. Legume allergies most commonly comprise allergic reactions to peanuts, but soybean allergies are also common. The allergens within legumes tend to be proteins involved with seed storage, including globulins, albumins, and prolamins. These are highly abundant and can still trigger reactions even after heating [9].

Lupin, a food that is closely related to the peanut, is quickly becoming one of the top allergens within the legume family. Lupin flour is a common substitute for wheat and soy flour in processed foods [9].

Along with avoiding legumes, it’s important to read labels and avoid products that may contain trace amounts of these allergens. Products are required to have a warning if they have been processed or manufactured in a way that allows for potential cross-contamination with these allergens [9].

4. Tree nuts

Tree nut allergies are common and can be triggered by a wide range of foods. Tree nuts can include:

  • Brazil nuts
  • Chestnuts
  • Walnuts
  • Pine nuts
  • Hazelnuts [10]

The allergens responsible include:

  • Seed storage proteins (albumins, legumins, vicilins)
  • Profilins
  • Proteins related to plant defense [10]

These proteins are common across all tree nuts, and most people with tree nut allergies may react to several different proteins. This usually means that if you are allergic to one tree nut, you are allergic to others [10].

5. Fish

Fish allergies are typically triggered by parvalbumin, a protein found in fish muscle tissue. This protein is found in all fish, so if you are allergic to one type of fish, you may be allergic to other species as well [11].

6. Shellfish

The main allergen found in shellfish is tropomyosin. Shellfish allergies most commonly involve ingestion of crustacean shellfish, like shrimps, crabs, lobsters, and prawns. However, people with crustacean shellfish allergies often still react to molluscan shellfish (clams, oysters, abalone) and edible land snails, both of which also contain tropomyosin. These allergies are particularly common in regions with high rates of shellfish consumption [12].

In fact, tropomyosin is a widespread protein found in many other invertebrate species, meaning you may react to non-dietary invertebrates that you make contact with. This includes house dust mites and cockroaches [12].

7. Wheat

Allergies to cereal and grain can manifest in different forms. Bakers’ asthma is an allergic reaction that frequently comes from occupational exposure to grain flour dust. Wheat-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis is a form of wheat allergy that occurs when you eat a wheat product immediately before exercise. People with wheat allergies can often tolerate rice without any problems [13].

Food allergies are a serious issue that can lead to severe problems. It’s also not uncommon for people to develop food allergies as they get older. If you think you may have an allergy, it’s a good idea to consult a healthcare provider to know for sure and to determine the best steps for your health.


References

1. Allergy Facts. American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

2. Food allergy. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

3. Food allergy - symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

4. Food allergy. National Health Service. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

5. What Is a Food Allergy? Food Allergy Research & Education. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

6. FOOD SENSITIVITY, INTOLERANCE, OR ALLERGY: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE? Global Autoimmune Institute. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

7. Allergenic Foods and their Allergens. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

8. Allergenic Foods and their Allergens - Eggs. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

9. Allergenic Foods and their Allergens - Legumes. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

10. Allergenic Foods and their Allergens - Tree Nuts. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

11. Allergenic Foods and their Allergens - Fish. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

12. Allergenic Foods and their Allergens - Crustacean Shellfish. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

13. Allergenic Foods and their Allergens - Cereals and Grains. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology. URL. Accessed February 9, 2022.

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