Food Allergies

About 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies. And it’s not something that should be taken lightly. That’s because once every three minutes a food allergy will send someone to the emergency room. While some reactions can be mild causing things such as hives and abdominal cramps, others can be severe leading to trouble breathing, loss of consciousness, and even death. To keep family and friends with food allergies safe, it is important to keep food and beverages containing allergens separate from other food. This is critical when shopping, storing, and cooking it.

Watch out for the “Big Eight”.

While any food can cause an allergic reaction, eight foods are responsible for 90% of the reactions. They are known as the “Big Eight” and include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy. Peanuts and tree nuts, such as walnuts and pecans, are also on the list.

The best way to safeguard family members and friends with food allergies is to keep the food they are allergic to out of your home. However, depending upon the severity of the food allergy and the needs of other family members, you may decide to keep food containing allergens in your home. If you do, you must make sure these allergens are not transferred to the food served to the allergic person. This is called cross-contact and it must be prevented in order to keep people safe. 

Check the label before you buy it.

If the food contains a “Big Eight” allergen, it must be listed on the label. The manufacturer might do that by including the name of the allergen in parenthesis next to the ingredient. For example, if flour is listed as an ingredient on the label, it might be followed by the word wheat in parenthesis—“flour (wheat)”. As an alternative, the manufacturer might include a statement that specifically calls out the allergens that are or may be contained in the food. For example a food that contains wheat, milk, and soy might include the following statement—“Contains wheat, milk, and soy.” This statement would be found next to or immediately following the list of ingredients.

Look at the packaging.

When buying food, make sure the package is not broken or damaged in any way. Damaged packages could allow allergens to get onto the product inside. And make sure that nothing has spilled on the outside of the package for the same reason. 

Watch where you put things in your cart.

Don’t stack food containing allergens on top of other food. This can lead to cross-contact and cause an allergic reaction. Consider placing food containing allergens away from other food in your cart. 

Store food containing allergens away from other food. 

Whenever possible, don’t store food and beverages containing allergens in the same area as other food. This can be asking for trouble! Find other storage areas, such as a separate cupboard or closet, for food containing allergens.  

Store food containing allergens in closed containers.

Never store food containing allergens in open containers. The risk of cross-contact is high. Store the food in closed containers made specifically for food. Buy separate food-storage containers with lids for refrigerated foods. Place nonperishable items in separate food-storage bins. And make sure you label containers so everyone knows what’s stored inside. 

Use separate equipment.

If possible, you should use separate kitchen equipment when preparing food without allergens in order to prevent cross-contact. That might include cutting boards, knives, and other utensils. It may help if the equipment is color-coded, which will remind you to keep it separate. Purple is one color used to indicate that the equipment should be used to prepare food without allergens. Make sure this equipment is stored separately from your other equipment. If you choose not to buy separate equipment, make sure you wash, rinse, and sanitize all equipment between each and every use.

Wash your hands.

You should always wash your hands before handling food. But it’s really important after handling food containing allergens and before handling other food. For example, after making a cake containing eggs, you have to wash your hands before making a batch of egg-free brownies for a family member with an egg allergy. See the General Food Safety section for information on how to wash your hands safely.

Don’t touch your body while preparing food. 

Watch what you’re doing when preparing food. If you touch your shirt while preparing a food containing an allergen and then touch it again when preparing another food, you’ve just made cross-contact. And that can result in an allergic reaction. So avoid touching clothing or your body when preparing food. To reduce the risk of cross-contact, you should consider changing your clothes after handling food containing an allergen and before handling other food. And if you wear an apron while preparing food, you should change that too!

Prepare food containing allergens away from other food.

Don’t prepare food containing an allergen near other food. If possible, use a separate area of your kitchen to prepare the other food. That way cross-contact is less likely to occur. 

When in doubt, throw it out.

If food has come in contact with an allergen, throw it out. Even a small amount of the allergen can cause an allergic reaction in a family member or friend with a food allergy. 

Clean surfaces carefully.

In order to remove allergens from a surface, that surface must be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water. Use a disposable paper towel to do it. Using the same towel or sponge that you’ve used for other tasks can result in cross-contact. Unlike bacteria, allergens are not reduced when a surface is sanitized. Soap, water, and some scrubbing is all that’s needed to get rid of them. And keep in mind that surfaces such as the kitchen table and salt and pepper shakers should also be cleaned with soap and water. 

Clean and sanitize equipment after each use.

Make sure that you clean and sanitize cooking equipment and utensils after each use. It may help to store this equipment together in one area. Also be sure that as soon as the equipment has been cleaned and sanitized, you return it to the chosen area.