Common allergy signs – including itchy mouth and swollen lips, face, mouth and eyelids

Food allergy is a vexed subject. How much of it is a true allergy and how much is down to intolerance? People also tend to use the word allergy when all they have is a deep dislike of a food.

An allergy always involves the immune system which causes unpleasant symptoms in an effort to protect the body from the offending food (allergen). Common signs are an itchy mouth, and swollen lips, face, mouth and eyelids.

In severe reactions, swallowing and breathing are affected and may go on to full-blown anaphylactic shock, which is an emergency and you should call an ambulance. So how common is allergy? Less than you might think. The Food Standards Agency in collaboration with Manchester University has carried out a large study into the prevalence of food allergies in UK adults.

The FSA project found more than 30% of adults reported a bad reaction when eating a particular food. When this was investigated further through a clinical assessment, however, it was found only around 6% of the UK adult population have a confirmed food allergy, much less than the 30% of people who thought they had. This equates to around 2.4 million adults in the UK.

So which foods affect UK adults the most? As you’d expect, foods such as peanuts and tree nuts like hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds are most likely to cause an allergic reaction. Many people also have allergies to fresh fruits such as apples, peaches and kiwi fruit. Some are associated with ­allergies to birch pollen, also known as pollen-food allergy syndrome.

Allergies to foods like milk, fish, shrimp and mussels aren’t uncommon. Childhood food allergies persist into early adulthood, and then further increase with around half of food allergies developing in later adulthood.

Professor Robin May, chief scientific adviser at the Food Standards Agency said: “Through this research, we can see patterns, such as the emergence of plant-based allergies, affecting more people in adulthood, which is important for us to consider as we’ve
seen the food system move towards plant-based diets and alternative proteins.

“The FSA remains committed to ensuring that consumers have clear and accurate allergen labelling to support people in the UK living with a food allergy. This report will help guide our future work on allergens to ensure everyone can enjoy food that is safe.”

Can you stop an allergy from ­developing? Well, the pioneering work of Professor Gideon Lack of King’s College London has shown that by exposing children to potentially allergic foods, including peanuts, before their first birthday, allergies can largely be avoided.