Each year, a growing number of people suffer from allergic reactions triggered by certain foods. Allergenic substances are identified in the packaging of products in different parts of the world. In Argentina a civic association provides counseling and guidance on allergies to patients and food companies.
The incidence of food allergies, which are immunologic pathologies, is growing. According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) the estimated prevalence of this type of allergies in the population is “from 1 to 3 percent in adults and 4 to 6 percent in children”. For example, in the United States food allergies affect 3.5 percent of the population, while in Argentina that number is close to 4%, although there are no available scientific studies to corroborate this information.
Whereas the risk of death from allergies is low, there are certain food allergens that bear an important probability of triggering an anaphylactic reaction, and without immediate medical intervention the reaction may become severe and even fatal.
In Argentina the National Food Commission (CONAL, for its acronym in Spanish) advocates for the Argentine Food Code to include the mandatory declaration of allergenic ingredients on the products label. The civic association in Food Allergen Platform, an interdisciplinary non-profit organization including government agencies, universities, food companies, medical specialists and parents of allergic children, prepared and submitted to authorities a number of recommendations to be taken into consideration to improve the current food code.
This organization seeks to provide information and guidance for the management of allergens in the food industry and to anticipate future demands, and has a clear view of which items and recommendations should be incorporated to the national legislation in order to be compatible with international regulations.
“The labeling should not only include the name of the compounds but also their identification so that consumers know what they are consuming”, says Claudia Gonzalez, coordinator of the civic association and who directs the strategic area of Food Technology at the National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA).
Training and advice to food industries in Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and drafting of guidelines to manage allergens in processing industries are among the most important tasks carried out by this platform.
Gonzalez identifies “cross contamination” as one of the problems that can result from the manufacturing process. “This is what interests companies the most, and INTA addresses this problem by creating this guide,” she says.
“The most important problems for industries lie in the involuntary presence of allergens in food products or errors that occur during packaging “, explains Gustavo Polenta, head of this platform module. These problems can be caused by the accidental presence of raw materials or processing aids, changes in the food formulation, inadequate cleaning procedures or improper management of packaging material, to name a few.
According to the investigator “it is a priority to focus research efforts on the development and evaluation of new analytical and food processing methods to reduce their allergenicity and to identify allergenic proteins in patients”.
Allergies and regulations
When a patient is exposed to an allergenic substance an excessive amount of Immunoglobulin E (IgE) is produced as a result of an aberrant activation of the immune system for reasons not fully understood. However upon a new exposure pro-inflammatory chemical mediators are released (especially histamine) causing typical symptoms of an allergic reaction. They can affect the skin (pruritus, erythema or edema), gastrointestinal tract (pain, nausea, vomiting, constriction, etc.), the respiratory tract (asthma, edema of the nasal cavity and throat, rhinitis, etc.) or transform into a systemic manifestation that can affect the cardiovascular system (arrhythmias, hypotension, etc.) and lead to death if not treated properly and timely.
However, not all allergic reactions are mediated by IgE. It is estimated that between 40 and 50 percent are IgE-independent and are mediated by immune cells, although these mechanisms are less well known than the IgE-mediated.
“The clinical presentation of allergies is variable and heterogeneous, so it is not possible to define food allergy as a single entity or pathology but rather a syndrome or set of diseases that have in common the abnormal activation of the immune system when it gets in contact with certain food or food component”, says Guillermo Docena, immunologist at the National University of La Plata. “But it is clear that food allergies do not depend on the toxicity of food but rather on individual susceptibility, and that the immune system is involved in its pathogenesis”, he adds.
Each country has in turn a “characteristic allergy” related to the type of food. For example in Argentina, although cow’s milk and eggs are the most important allergens, there are people allergic to kiwi, tomatoes and eggs , unlike countries such as Japan, where people often have allergic reactions to shellfish, or the U.S., where peanut allergy is very important.
Different agencies identified more than 70 food allergens worldwide and noted that 75 percent of the reactions in infants are due to a small number of foods. This lead to the developed of an international regulation that requires identification of these substances in labels of commercial products.
The FAO-WHO Codex Alimentarius, to which all members subscribe, “was amended in 2001 to address the need to declare on the label of packaged foods the presence of major allergens in ingredients, additives or processing aids”, explains María López, investigator at the Center for Grains and Oilseeds at the National Industrial Technology Institute (INTI) (see sidebar: “Big eight”)
How to declare substances
Investigators from INTI and the Pharmacy and Biochemistry Faculty at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) surveyed 30 food labels and analyzed the components of these products to assess in which way companies declare allergenic substances and to determine which the most common warning statements are. Results show that in most products with warning statements the declared allergens were not detected.
Laura Lopez, study coordinator and bromatology specialist from UBA, explains that “in industries it would be important to carry an adequate control of allergens to determine which are really present in the product and which not, in order to only declare the present ones. This can become handy for patients and result in a wider offer of allowed foods”.
Currently patients avoid foods that can contain harmful substances, which impacts not only on their personal economy, but in the food industry.
In Argentina the Platform may provide tools for food companies to adequate to international current regulations and thus avoid problems that restrict the access of domestic products to world markets and to ensure food quality for allergic consumers.
Claudia Gonzalez – firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Gonzalez is a specialist in Science and Food Technology at The Ohio State University (USA). She coordinates the AE Food Technology at INTA and the Food Allergen Platform. She is also an associate professor at the University in San Martín (UnSam) and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET, for its acronym in Spanish)