The "Big 8" Food Allergens

John Riddle

Each year, millions of Americans have allergic reactions to food. Although most food allergies cause relatively mild symptoms, some food allergies can cause severe reactions, and may even be life-threatening.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates of the prevalence of food allergies range from approximately 4% to 8% of children and about 2% of adults.  Though reasons for this are poorly understood, the prevalence of food allergies and associated anaphylaxis appears to be on the rise. Risk factors associated with food allergy include: family history of asthma and allergies, genetic predisposition to allergic disease, elevated allergen-specific serum immunoglobulin levels, and being younger than 3 years of age.

“The number of people with food allergies has increased dramatically in the past two decades,” said Christine Szychlinski, a nurse and manager of the Bunning Food Allergy Program at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “Although hard numbers are difficult to obtain, we do have one telephone survey which showed that the number of respondents with peanut allergy doubled over a 5 year period in the 1990s,” she said.   

There are eight foods that account for 90% of all food-allergy reactions in the U.S.: cow’s milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts (for example, walnuts, pecans, almonds, and cashews), fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.  While 3.3 million Americans are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts, 6.9 million are allergic to seafood. Combined, food allergies cause 30,000 cases of anaphylaxis, 2,000 hospitalizations, and approximately 150 deaths annually.


Here is a breakdown of the top 8 food allergens:

  • Milk – A milk allergy is a potentially deadly allergic reaction to one or more dairy proteins and are most common in young children, who usually develop the condition within the first six months of life. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, studies have shown that 2% to 5%  of children develop a milk allergy in the first year of life. Milk allergies are twice as common as egg allergies and three times as common as peanut allergies.
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