A Guide to the Most Common Food Allergies

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In This Article

Many foods can cause allergies, but some are more common than others. Almost 90% of all serious food allergies are related to proteins (allergens) in eight foods: milk, soy, egg, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. These common food allergies, and others, can cause a range of symptoms from a mild rash to a severe, life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. Some food allergies are commonly outgrown, while others are typically lifelong.

These foods are often ingredients in other foods, so avoiding them requires diligence, including careful label reading and other measures. Even then, there may be times when exposures happen unknowingly.

Here’s what you need to know about the most common food allergies, who they tend to occur more often in, and some of the foods and products you'll need to avoid if you're allergic.

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Watch Now: 8 Surprising Sources of Common Food Allergens

Milk Allergy

When you have a milk allergy, your immune system overreacts to the proteins in milk—casein and whey. This condition is different than lactose intolerance, which is the inability to properly digest the sugar lactose.  

How Common Is It?

Milk allergy is the most common food allergy among American children, affecting about 6% of kids. It’s typically diagnosed in the first year of life. About 80% of children with a milk allergy will outgrow it by adolescence. About 1% to 2% of adults are estimated to have a milk allergy. 

What to Avoid

Some problematic foods are obvious, like milk, cheese, and ice cream. With other foods or dishes, it’s hard to know whether they contain milk unless you read product ingredient lists or, if you're out to eat, speak to the chef.

According to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), food allergens must be identified on food labels in plain, easy-to-understand language. If the food has milk in it, it should be listed in the ingredient list and also say “contains milk.” If the ingredient is a milk product, it could be listed in parentheses—for example, “whey (milk).”

Those will milk allergies should avoid foods with ingredients like casein, buttermilk, cream, diacetyl, ghee, lactose, and whey. Some unexpected places to find milk include artificial butter flavor, non-dairy creamer, deli meats, hot dogs, canned tuna, and skin and hair care products.

Egg Allergy

People who are allergic to eggs are triggered by the proteins in eggs. You can be allergic to the egg white, the egg yolk, or both. Experts recommend avoiding the whole egg when you have an allergy. 

How Common Is it?

About 2.5% of all children have an egg allergy, making this the second most common food allergy in kids. Diagnosis typically happens before age 2. About half of these children will outgrow their allergy by age 5, and most will outgrow it by adolescence.

What to Avoid

Here too, eggs must be listed on food labels in plain language, such as “contains egg,” according to FALCPA. Always read the ingredient label for evidence of egg in a food product. Be aware of hidden egg ingredients in foods you might not expect, like liquid egg substitutes, pasta, and the foam topping of specialty coffee drinks.

Egg protein also may be present in vaccines such as those for the flu and MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella). If you have an egg allergy, talk with your healthcare provider about the risks and benefits of getting vaccinated.

Wheat Allergy

A wheat allergy is caused by an allergic reaction to a wheat protein. It’s sometimes confused with celiac disease, even though they are two different conditions. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which eating gluten can cause damage in the small intestine. In contrast, gluten is not usually involved in wheat allergy reactions.

How Common Is It?

Wheat allergies are common in children but rare in adults. About 0.4% of children in the U.S. are allergic to wheat. Two-thirds of children will outgrow a wheat allergy by age 12. 

Some children who are allergic to wheat will be allergic to other grains as well, although many can substitute alternative grains to cover their nutritional needs. Check with your allergist if other grains like amaranth, barley, or rye are OK to eat. 

What to Avoid

If you have a wheat allergy, check all food labels, even if you think the food doesn't contain wheat. It is found in a variety of foods including breads, cereals, pasta, and crackers, as well as in unlikely foods like beer, candy, soy sauce, deli meats, ice cream, and imitation crabmeat. 

Peanut Allergy

For people with peanut allergies, just a small amount of peanut protein can cause their immune systems to overreact. A peanut allergy is often considered a life-threatening allergy because the rates of anaphylaxis are higher than that of milk, egg, or wheat allergies.

Peanuts are part of the legume family, which includes soybeans, peas, lentils, and beans. The protein in peanuts is similar to tree nuts, so if you have a peanut allergy, you’re more likely to have a tree nut allergy as well (see below). Those with peanut allergies are also more likely to be allergic to lupin, which is also a legume.

How Common Is It?

Peanuts are one of the most common foods to cause allergies. The number of cases has increased in recent years. A 2017 research study presented at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting reported that peanut allergies increased 21% since 2010. The study found that 2.5% of U.S. children are allergic to peanuts.

For most people, peanut allergies are lifelong.

What to Avoid

Even a small amount of peanut protein can cause an allergic reaction, so it’s important to read labels carefully and ask questions about ingredients. Look for "contains peanut" or “made on shared equipment with peanuts” on food labels. 

Baked goods and candy are high-risk foods for those with peanut allergy. Even if these items don’t contain peanuts, cross-contamination where they are made is a strong possibility. Cross-contamination is also a notable concern in African, Asian, Mediterranean, and Mexican restaurants, which often prepare meals with peanuts. 

Peanuts can also be found in surprising places like chili, sauce, pancakes, egg rolls, sunflower seed butter, and ice cream. It’s sometimes found in pet food and skin care products. 

If you or your child has a peanut allergy, make sure you read food labels before using any products and ask questions at restaurants, even if you have before and think a food or dish is safe. Changes in ingredients and preparation processes can happen at any time, putting you at risk.

Tree Nut Allergy

Tree nuts include a broad range of nuts, such as walnuts, pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts, and almonds. If you’re allergic to one tree nut, you’re more likely to be allergic to more than one. The risk of an anaphylactic reaction to tree nuts is higher than that of milk, egg, or wheat.  

How Common Is It?

In terms of the overall population, about 0.8% of children and 0.6% of adults have a tree nut allergy. For people with peanut allergies, about 25% to 40% also have a tree nut allergy.

Tree nut allergies can present for the first time in both children and adults. It’s usually a lifelong allergy, but about 9% of children with a tree nut allergy will outgrow it. 

What to Avoid

Your doctor may recommend that you avoid all tree nuts and peanuts because of the risk of cross-contamination. Food labels must list the type of tree nut in the ingredient list. There are many names for different types of tree nuts, so talk with your doctor about the ones you should avoid. 

Tree nuts can be found in foods like cereals, crackers, cookies, candy, and chocolates. Some unexpected places include pesto, barbecue sauces, and some cold cuts. You may also find tree nut oils in some soaps, lotions, and shampoos.

Soy Allergy

People who are allergic to soy have a reaction to the proteins in soybeans. Allergic reactions are usually mild, but as with all food allergies, it is possible to have a severe, life-threatening reaction.

How Common Is It?

Soy is a common food allergy for children but is less so for teens and adults. About 0.4% of children are allergic to soy. It’s estimated that 50% of kids outgrow a soy allergy after one year, and most will outgrow it by age 10. 

What to Avoid

Soy must be labeled on food packages. Food and drinks with soy include infant formula, edamame, miso, and tempeh. Because soy is a staple in many popular vegetarian dishes, such as those that contain tofu, vegetarians with a soy allergy will need to rely on other protein sources. Surprising sources of soy can include canned tuna, low-fat peanut butter, sauces, soaps, and moisturizers.  

Fish Allergy

When you have a fish allergy, you’re allergic to the proteins in finned fish, such as tuna, cod, halibut, and salmon. A fish allergy is different than a shellfish allergy (i.e., to foods like crabs, shrimp, etc.), so you may have one but not the other.

The allergic reaction is usually caused by eating fish, but some people also have symptoms after touching it or breathing in vapors while fish is being cooked.

How Common Is It?

About 0.2% of children and 0.5% of adults have a fish allergy. While it can develop during childhood, it can also first occur in adulthood. People who have fish allergies usually don’t outgrow them.

What to Avoid

It is possible to be allergic to one type of fish species and not others. Salmon, tuna, and halibut are the most common problematic fish for people with fish allergy. However, more than half of people who are allergic to one type of fish are allergic to others, so your doctor may advise you to avoid all fish to be safe.

According to FALCPA, the specific type of fish included in a food product must be disclosed on the package. Fish has been found in surprising foods like Caesar salad dressing, artificial seafood, Worcestershire sauce, barbecue sauce, and kosher gelatin, which is made from fish bones.

Avoid eating at seafood restaurants, where there is a risk of cross-contamination, even if you order a non-fish meal. If a restaurant serves fried fish, avoid ordering foods like French fries that may be cooked in the same oil. 

Shellfish Allergy

There are two types of shellfish: crustacean (shrimp, crab, and lobster) and mollusks (clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops). Allergic reactions are usually caused by crustacean shellfish and tend to be severe. The reaction is usually caused by eating the shellfish, but it may also be caused by touching it or breathing the steam from cooking shellfish.

How Common Is It?

Shellfish allergy occurs in adults more often than children, with about 60% having their first reaction as an adult. About 2% of adults report having an allergy to crustacean shellfish. Once you have a shellfish allergy, it tends to be a lifelong.

What to Avoid

The specific crustacean shellfish must be labeled as an ingredient on packaged food, according to FALCPA. Mollusks are not considered a major allergen and may not be fully disclosed on a product label.

As with fish allergy, it is best to either avoid seafood restaurants due to concerns with cross-contamination. If you find yourself dining in one, do your best to avoid a reaction by speaking to the staff and insisting that your food not be prepared or cooked in an area shellfish has touched.

Some unexpected places you may find shellfish include glucosamine (a supplement) and seafood flavoring.

If You Suspect a Food Allergy

If you think that you or your child may have a food allergy, make an appointment with your doctor. Taking note of food allergy symptoms and when they occur can help in the diagnostic process.

However, if you have a severe allergic reaction—trouble breathing, swelling in the mouth, or symptoms that affect more than one system in the body (like hives and stomach pain)—call 911 and go to the ER.

A Word From Verywell

Food allergy reactions can vary from person to person and, in some cases, from episode to episode in the same individual. Even if you have a mild allergic reaction the first time, it can be severe or life-threatening the next. A doctor can run allergy tests to confirm which food(s), if any, you're allergic to. Check with your doctor even if you think you’ve identified your allergy based on your personal or family history, and never permanently remove a food group from your diet without consulting with your doctor.

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Article Sources
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