Written by Gaby Burt-D’Agnillo, BSc Nutrition Candidate
Reviewed by Andrea Miller MHSc, RD
May is Food Allergy Awareness Month in Canada. To raise awareness and educate the public, let’s talk about food allergies, symptoms, and common food allergens in Canada.
Food Allergy vs Food Intolerance
Food allergies are caused by a reaction of the body’s immune system to a specific food or food component, known as an allergen. If you have an allergy, your immune system is hypersensitive to a particular allergen and releases antibodies called immunoglobulins causing an allergic reaction. Food intolerances are also characterized by an abnormal response to a food product, but differ from food allergies as they do not involve antibodies and symptoms may not be as severe. Lactose intolerance is an example of a food intolerance.
Priority Food Allergens in Canada
Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), allergy associations, and the medical community have identified the key substances most frequently associated with food allergies and allergic-type reactions. These substances are often referred to as priority food allergens.
Eggs: Read food labels and avoid products with ingredients such as albumin, vitellin, lecithin, and prefix “ovo,” meaning “egg.”
Milk: A milk allergy involves an immune response and can be life-threatening. Lactose intolerance occurs when a person cannot digest lactose, a milk sugar, and is not life-threatening.
Mustard: It may be surprising that this allergen is on the Health Canada Priority Food Allergens list. Read food labels on condiments, sauces, salad dressings, and pickled products.
Peanuts: Peanuts are a member of the legume family, and are not related to tree nuts. Peanuts are a common allergen in anaphylactic reactions.
Tree Nuts: Tree nuts include almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts.
Fish, Crustaceans and Molluscs: People with allergies to one type of seafood may not be allergic to other kinds of seafood. Some people can eat fish safely but may react to crab or lobster.
Sesame Seeds: Read food labels and avoid products with ingredients such as benne, sim sim, and tahini (sesame paste). Sesame can be found in baked goods, dips and spreads, tempeh, vegetarian burgers, and snack foods.
Soy: Read food labels and avoid products with ingredients such as bean curd (tofu), edamame, natto, and soya. Soy can be found in non-food sources such as cosmetics, soaps, candles, and vitamins.
Sulphites: Sulphites are regulated food additives used to preserve colour and prolong shelf life, prevent microbial growth, and maintain potency of certain medications. Foods containing sulphites include processed foods, condiments, corn syrup, dried herbs, starches, and vinegars.
Wheat and Triticale: A wheat allergy occurs when the body’s immune system reacts abnormally to wheat proteins. Triticale is a hybrid grain created by crossing wheat and rye. Wheat and triticale allergies are different than celiac disease, where consuming gluten proteins may damage intestinal lining and limit the body from absorbing nutrients.
Health Canada Regulations require specific labelling of priority allergens, gluten sources and added sulphites on pre-packaged foods sold in Canada. Food industry companies must use plain language (use words like “milk” instead of “casein”) to provide Canadians with the information necessary to make informed food choices.
Symptoms and Anaphylaxis
Symptoms of allergic reactions can range in severity, and can be unpredictable. Reactions can develop quickly and symptoms may progress rapidly. The most severe form of an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis is characterized by skin reactions, low blood pressure, constricted airways, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or dizziness. Should a severe reaction occur, epinephrine (adrenaline) is injected through an auto-injector such as an EpiPen. This should be followed by observation in a hospital emergency room.
What Can You Do?
Food allergies currently have no cure. Avoiding your specific allergen(s) is the most effective way to manage your risk. Read ingredient labels carefully and understand where your allergens may be found. Identify precautionary wording such as “may contain” statements on product packaging, and avoid consuming those foods. If you have questions about food allergies, contact a registered dietitian.
For FAQs and quick facts about food allergies, visit Food Allergy Canada.
Food Allergy Awareness Month information can be found here.