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How to Spot Dangerous Allergens Hiding in Your Food and Drinks

If you or your child has a food allergy, you know how important it is to watch out for foods that contain milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans or other allergens. 

Food allergies can cause serious symptoms, such as hives, itching, swelling, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulties and anaphylaxis.

Even if you’re careful to avoid foods that contain allergens, sometimes they are hard to spot. “Hidden allergens can trigger allergic reactions in some people, but they are not obvious or easy to identify. They can be found in many foods and drinks,” said Mike Daines, MD, a pediatric allergist and immunologist with Banner – University Medicine.

Allergens could be lurking in processed food or hidden under a different name. So you can’t just read food labels to look for the ones you recognize. You need to know their other names as well.

Plus, small amounts of allergens could appear in foods prepared in the same space as other foods that contain allergens. So even if the food you’re eating shouldn’t have allergens, there’s a risk of cross-contamination.

While they may be dangerous, hidden allergens are not only a concern for people with food allergies. 

“People with intolerances, sensitivities or dietary preferences may also need to avoid them,” Dr. Daines said. “For example, some people may want to avoid gluten, lactose or animal products for health or ethical reasons, but they may unknowingly consume them through hidden sources.”

It’s important to learn how to dig into food labels to get the information you need. That way, you can make safer choices and minimize the odds of an allergic reaction or unintentional exposure.

Watch for these common hidden allergens

“Allergens are considered hidden because they are either not listed on the label or listed under a different name that you might not be expecting,” Dr. Daines said. “Some products may contain milk or eggs without stating so, or they may use terms like natural flavoring or spices that can include allergens.”

These are some allergens that might show up in foods where you don’t expect them. 

  • Dairy 
    • Words to watch for: Whey, casein, lactose and ghee
    • Some possible hiding places: Baked goods, salad dressings, processed meats and medications 
  • Gluten 
    • Words to watch for: Malt, semolina and couscous
    • Some possible hiding places: Sauces, soups, prepared eggs and processed meats
  • Nuts 
    • Words to watch for: Arachis oil (peanut oil), marzipan and nougat
    • Some possible hiding places: Sauces, baked goods and beauty products

Keep in mind that the ingredients the food contains the most are listed first. Then they go down to the smallest amounts, which are listed last. So the closer an allergen is to the beginning of the ingredients list, the more of it you’ll find in the food.

What to look for on food labels

To look for hidden food allergens, it’s important to understand how to read food labels. The government regulates food labeling so people have accurate information about the foods they buy. 

Laws usually require food labels to clearly state whether they contain common allergens such as milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans or if they were made in a facility that processes them. 

“The allergen statement is usually at the end of the ingredients list,” Dr. Daines said. Look for bold or highlighted text, statements about allergens or icons representing foods containing allergens. 

You’ll also want to read the ingredients list, which may include other names for allergens, such as those listed above, albumin or ovalbumin for eggs or lecithin or tofu for soy.

“Allergens in prepared foods can change over time. Manufacturers may change the ingredients or the production methods of their products without notifying consumers,” Dr. Daines said. “You should always read a product’s label before buying or consuming a food, even if you have used it before without any problems.”

If you have a severe food allergy, you should always have an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) with you.

Tips for avoiding allergens 

Living with food allergies can be complicated. You can make it a little easier by:

  • Planning your meals ahead of time, so you’re not buying food that might contain allergens at the last minute.
  • Prepare meals at home when you can, so you can control the ingredients and reduce the risk of accidental exposure.
  • Batch meals and freeze them to eat later, so you have safe options ready to heat.
  • Tell friends, family, hosts, chefs and servers about your dietary restrictions and ask about ingredients and how dishes are prepared.

Look for other food options

When you have food allergies, you can still find safe food alternatives:

  • Look for brands that specialize in allergen-free foods.
  • Learn substitutions, such as almond flour for wheat or coconut milk instead of dairy.
  • Try new ingredients, so you have more options at mealtimes.

Hidden allergens in other products

Sometimes, you’ll find food allergens in products like medication and personal care items.

For medication, make sure your health care provider knows about your food allergies and check the list of inactive ingredients. If you’re not sure whether a drug is safe, ask your provider or pharmacist.

For personal care items, read the labels carefully. Some cosmetics and skin care products contain almond oil, soy or wheat germ oil. Fragrances might have allergens that aren’t listed on the label. And shampoos, conditioners and hair dyes can contain hidden allergens. Choose products that are labeled as allergen-free.

The bottom line

“The best way to avoid hidden allergens is to be informed, cautious and prepared,” Dr. Daines said. You should always:

  • Check the labels of the products you use.
  • Ask questions when you’re eating out or buying from unfamiliar sources.
  • Carry an EpiPen if you have a severe allergy.
  • Consult your provider or an allergist if you suspect you have an allergy or have any symptoms after eating or using a product.
  • See your health care provider regularly to talk about your strategies for avoiding allergens. 

To connect with a provider who can help you take steps to avoid food allergens and stay safe, reach out to Banner Health

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