Understanding the Nature of Food Allergens and Their Potential Effects


In the majority of cases, whether their source happens to be a type of food or some other material, allergens tend to be complex proteins, and while the vast majority of individuals are unlikely to experience any ill effects as a result of ingesting or of having some other form of contact with these compounds, in a few subjects, such exposure can have rather unpleasant consequences. Indeed, in more extreme cases, the reaction to these proteins can actually be life-threatening.

A derivative of the term applied to the offending compounds, an allergy or allergic reaction is a response by the body’s immunes system which mistakenly identifies allergens present in food and other substances as potentially harmful in much the same way that it might perceive an invading bacterium, virus, or other foreign body. Often, the response can be relatively mild, resulting in a skin rash known as hives, together with an irritation in the mouth and some wheezing.

Over time, subsequent attacks may tend to become more severe and the reaction to the same food allergens can then extend to the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems. In extreme cases, this may result in a condition known as anaphylaxis in which combined cardiac and respiratory failure can threaten the subject’s life unless treated promptly with an injection of the hormone epinephrine. The latter promotes vasoconstriction to raise blood pressure, whilst opening the airways to aid breathing.

Although just about any food may behave as an allergen in certain subjects, in practice, there are just eight that have found to be responsible for almost 90% of all adverse reactions, and most of these tend to feature prominently in the kitchens of western diners. The usual suspects are those containing egg, dairy products, tree or ground nuts, fish, molluscs, wheat or soy, and various combinations of these.

In most countries, including South Africa, manufacturers are now legally obliged to test for these in their products, and to clearly indicate their presence where confirmed, or potential presence where this cannot, with certainty, be ruled out.

Today, it is a relatively simple matter for a concerned consumer to approach a specialist who will conduct tests to identify those food allergens that could pose a possible health risk, and selected screening tests are now even available online. In turn, for the manufacturer of processed foods there is also a range of specialised reagents and instruments that enable them to detect the presence, and to assay the concentration of these and of other potentially harmful components in their products, whether included by design or by accident.

Given the potential danger of these food allergens and the possible consequences of liability on the part of an errant producer, the need for reliable testing systems is clearly paramount. In South Africa, this is a need that has long been met by IEPSA. With more than 35 years of experience to draw on, our company has become the preferred supplier of the test kits and equipment used for the detection of allergens in food, as well as for a growing number of diagnostic applications in all disciplines of modern medicine and related research.


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