Handling a Food Allergy: Read Your Labels and Know Your Terms

Having a food allergy means that, every day, you live in constant worry you’ll accidentally ingest a food or beverage that contains some trace amounts of an allergen that will trigger your food allergy to become active.

About 15 million people in the U.S. have food allergies, including about 9 million adults and 6 million children. Some allergies cause relatively mild symptoms like bloating or gas, while others cause more severe or chronic conditions like itchy rash, sore throat, swelling in the mouth or throat, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting and even respiratory problems. The most severe reactions can cause anaphylactic shock and death.

Abney, PlacerGrocery shopping or going out to eat can be a nightmare, especially considering that these and other allergens can show up in some unexpected ways, especially in prepared foods. For instance:

  • Peanut butter is sometimes used as a thickener in chili, stews and even some soups and spaghetti sauces.
  • Foods containing hydrolyzed protein may contain nuts or gluten.
  • Many soy cheeses are processed in facilities that also process milk-based cheeses.
  • Instant mashed potatoes are often flavored with butter or milk during dehydration.“Natural flavoring” often contains peanuts or other nuts or wheat (gluten).
  • Crumb toppings often use peanuts as a binder or flavor enhancer or to add a crunchier texture.
  • Hot dogs and deli meats may contain milk products like whey used as fillers. Many delis use the same slicer for cheese and meats, so even those that don’t contain milk products can still be contaminated.
  • Chewing gum often contains calcium derived from milk and milk products.
  • Medicines may contain extenders made from milk products or gluten.

And that’s far from an exhaustive list. It’s easy to see why reading labels – and educating yourself about what unfamiliar terms like hydrolized protein actually mean – is so critically important to maintaining good health when you have common food allergies.

Perhaps more worrisome than the list of foods that contain these allergens is the fact that even products that don’t contain the allergens themselves may still be processed by machinery or in a facility where gluten, nuts, milk or other allergens are processed. That means even so-called “safe” foods may be cross-contaminated by tiny particles left in processing equipment or floating through the air, and for many people with common food allergies, those tiny particles are just enough to trigger an allergic reaction.

If you have a food allergy or any other type of allergy that requires out-of-pocket expenses, like extra co-pays for doctor visits or medication for allergy management, you can help control your costs by identifying a policy or coverage type that helps limit these costs or provides better deductibles and prescription benefits. Your insurance agent can help you find the best plan to help you keep out-of-pocket costs as low as possible.

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