Why we should learn more about the daily struggles of people with food hypersensitivities

26th April 2022

By Barbora Nemeckova

Postgraduate student Barbora Nemeckova works in Paul Kroon’s group at the Quadram Institute. As part of her PhD training, she has just spent three months on a UKRI-funded internship with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) Food Hypersensitivity Team. Barbora shares what she’s learned about food allergies and what we can all do to help people with food allergies/food hypersensitivity.

The UK celebrates Food Allergy Awareness Week and national charities, academic organisations and food hypersensitive (FHS) consumers unite to raise awareness about the lifelong conditions that require daily management. Currently, between 1-2 per cent of adults and 5-8 per cent of children in the UK are diagnosed with food allergy (Anaphylaxis Campaign). And the numbers are even higher when we consider people with food intolerances and coeliac disease.

Milk jug and glass

Photo credit: calum-lewis, unsplash

Food allergies can be described as immune reactions to a particular food or substance, which can vary in severity of symptoms and could even be life-threatening (anaphylaxis). For people with allergies, but also the people around them, it’s important to recognise the signs of a reaction, how to prevent them and when to seek help. Allergic reactions to food are quite fast and can get worse very quickly. It’s important to act promptly and treat reactions with adrenaline injection (often referred to as epi-pen) and get medical attention. Allergic reactions can also be mild and manifest as tingling, itching, swelling, and redness in the face, or rashes and hives. Other reactions to food that are more delayed are often diagnosed as intolerances, or for those reacting to gluten, coeliac disease. They often present with gastrointestinal symptoms. Because of this, it can be harder to diagnose or pinpoint what food is causing the reaction. It’s important to seek a diagnosis from a qualified medical professional because they can provide their patients with FHS-specific education and develop a plan that is necessary to manage the condition and avoid future reactions. More and more people are self-diagnosing and not receiving the appropriate care.

We can all agree that any type of reaction to food is not pleasant. The difficulties connected to managing a condition like food hypersensitivity are often overlooked by those who have not had a personal experience with it. But it’s useful to consider that we have to eat food multiple times a day, and everything that people with FHS eat has to be thoroughly checked for risk of allergen presence or cross-contamination. People with FHS spend more time shopping because they have to read food labels and search for food that is suitable for their dietary needs. They also spend more money on their weekly shopping than people without these conditions, as suitable food can be often more expensive.

Eating burger and chips

Photo credit: eiliv-sonas-aceron, unsplash.

There is still a certain stigma connected with allergies and having to constantly speak up and advocate for your needs could be exhausting, anxiety inducing, and have a negative impact on quality of life. The uncertainty about whether food can cause a reaction is a feeling that FHS consumers have to deal with every day. From children and adolescents attending school, engaging in social activities, visiting family, or traveling abroad, all these activities can increase the risks to FHS consumers. They have to ask about the presence of allergens or reactive foods and rely on the knowledge and understanding of those who are serving them food that the food is safe for them to eat.

Charities like Allergy UK, Anaphylaxis Campaign and Natasha Allergy Research Foundation are trying to raise awareness about the difficulties FHS consumers face and provide resources to those who want to learn more about how they can help. It is absolutely crucial that people working in the food and hospitality industry understand and honour the needs of FHS consumers for them to have an enjoyable experience when eating out and buying food.

The Food Standards Agency is working with food businesses to help them implement legislation that seeks to protect FHS consumers, such as the recent change in allergen labelling Natasha’s Law which affected the food prepacked for direct sale. They also commission research to better understand the experiences of FHS consumers, the prevalence of food hypersensitivities, the cost of FHS or what causes most serious and fatal reactions. This research and co-operation of food businesses are small steps that can help FHS consumers face fewer barriers to participating in daily activities involving food and much more.

So what can we do to make their life easier?

  • Ask your friends about their hypersensitivities when planning an event to make sure the venue can accommodate their needs
  • When taking food out of packaging – note it down for reference when cooking for FHS consumers or sharing food, it contains important information about the ingredients and about potential presence of contaminants known as ‘Precautionary Allergen Labelling’ – such as ‘May contain’
  • When cooking for friends and family, ask about their allergies and intolerances and offer alternatives where possible – FHS consumers often feel like they don’t want to make a fuss, cause a scene or be a burden so don’t speak up
  • When bringing cake or refreshments for a work celebration, note down the allergens or ingredients used – people with FHS might feel safer to participate and feel less isolated
  • Consider non-food-based activities for children’s parties to avoid exclusion of children with FHS
  • Just as you consider hygiene when cooking food, consider cross-contamination with allergens in the kitchen environment if you are serving food to FHS consumers
  • Speak up for your friends if they feel uncomfortable bringing up their FHS – the FSA did a campaign about this recently, watch their videos here
  • Learn more about allergies and educate yourself and your peers, there is never too much to learn about FHS and the burdens consumers face – start with factsheets from Anaphylaxis Campaign or Allergy UK

I learned all of this information as part of a 3-month UKRI-funded Policy Internship Scheme in the FSA Food Hypersensitivity Team. Learn more about what the Programme does on their website.

Please share this blog with the hashtag #AllergyAwarenessWeek and talk about your experiences with food hypersensitivities.