The Most Common Food Allergens, and Where They Lurk

From restaurant menus to grocery store aisles, it seems like there are allergy warnings everywhere. And it’s with good reason too – allergy diagnoses, especially for young children, have been on the rise for the past 20 years. Even mild allergic reactions may trigger a sore throat or rash, and severe reactions can be frightening and potentially life-threatening.

Although there are more than 160 identified food allergens, a handful of allergens are the most prevalent. These tips may help you avoid food allergens and find safe substitutes to minimize their impact on your daily life.


“Milk: it does a body good.” You probably recall that famous advertising campaign. However, for those with milk and dairy allergies, consuming milk doesn’t do them good. It can actually be a frustrating and even dangerous experience, leading to symptoms that range from hives to anaphylactic shock.


Fortunately, there are a lot of high-quality, flavorful milk substitutes for those who can’t consume dairy. Products with a coconut, soy or nut base can fill the dairy gap, and are available in every form from “milk” to yogurt to ice cream to cheese.

Hidden milk: What to watch out for

Dairy is insidious and can lurk in many unexpected food items. You may find hidden dairy in baked goods, processed meats (including deli meats and pre-seasoned fajita strips), candy, cereal and mashed potatoes, just to name a few. Even if milk or dairy is not indicated on the label, ingredients like casein and whey can include dairy protein.


Egg allergies are caused by sensitivity to egg protein. While some folklore recommends separating egg whites or yolks to avoid allergic reactions, it can be impossible to separate the proteins from one another fully.


In baked goods, applesauce, mashed banana or avocado can be a good substitute for eggs and can provide moisture and texture. The baked goods can take on some of the flavor of these items, though, so make sure it’s a recipe that suits the flavor. Banana cornbread doesn’t necessarily sound delicious, for example, but a banana pancake can be a popular favorite. For breakfasts, scramble tofu with peppers, mushrooms and cheese to replicate your favorite omelette.

“Hidden” eggs: What to watch out for

If you have an egg allergy, egg washes on baked goods can trigger symptoms. In addition, many high-quality pastas can contain egg protein. “Hidden eggs” on ingredient labels can include words that begin with “ova” or “ovo,” such as ovalbumin.

Peanuts and tree nuts

Peanut allergies have increased dramatically in both prevalence and severity during the past several decades. In fact, many school campuses now label themselves as “nut-free” in an effort to avoid unintended contact with allergens for their students. And, those with peanut allergies also have a higher probability of developing an allergy to other tree nuts, including walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts.


Seeds, like sunflower seeds and sesame seeds, can provide a nutty flavor and a smooth texture that mimic those created by nuts. However, sesame has also been trending upward as a common food allergen, so consume tahini and other sesame-based pastes with care.

“Hidden” nuts: What to watch out for

Many food labels indicate if a product has been processed on equipment that also processes nut products. Commercially-prepared candies and cookies are the most common offenders. Mole, a sauce used in traditional Mexican cooking, can sometimes be created using a peanut base.


Soy products can be used as a replacement for dairy products in many situations. However, for those with a soy allergy, the list of items to avoid can be even more extensive. Soy is typically associated with Asian foods (soy sauce, anyone?) but is actually present in many of the foods we consume on a daily basis, including most fast food items.


Many people don’t think of soy as a regular menu item, but for those allergic to soy, it can be beneficial to do more food prep and purchase fewer processed food items. Quinoa can be a good substitute for soy items like veggie burgers.

What to watch out for

A few soy-related foods to check and consume with caution include protein bars, powdered shake mixes, foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG), soy sauce, broth and boullion cubes.

Wheat and grains

Celiac’s disease and gluten intolerance has been on high alert on the public radar for the past several years. In fact, many high profile celebrities have removed gluten from their diet, including Zooey Deschanel, Drew Brees and Victoria Beckham.

Gluten is a protein that holds together many grains, with wheat being the most commonly consumed by Americans. A sensitivity to gluten and a wheat allergy are two different things; while gluten gets a lot of publicity, scientists have actually identified more than 20 compounds in wheat that could be responsible for triggering an allergic reaction.


Easy replacements for wheat-based items can be found on the pasta and bread aisle. Look for options made with rice flour, potato flour or ancient grains.

“Hidden” wheat: What to watch out for

Wheat can be hidden in a variety of items, including ice cream, hot dogs and beer. Some modeling clay products, like Play-doh, also contain wheat and should be used with caution by children with wheat allergies.

Fish and shellfish

Fish and shellfish allergies are more common in adults than in children. And, this allergy can have an unexpected onset: many adults may have eaten various fish and shellfish without incident throughout their lives. However, once an initial allergic reaction occurs, the sufferer is likely to continue to be sensitive to these food items for the foreseeable future.


There are few substitutes for fish flavor. However, items like walnuts, flaxseed and Omega-3 enhanced dairy can provide some of the health benefits of fish without the allergenic consequences.

“Hidden” fish: What to watch out for

Fish and fish products can be incorporated into a few surprising items, including Caesar dressing and worcheshire sauce. Use caution when eating in restaurants that serve fish, as well, because of the possibility of cross-contamination.

Symptoms of food allergies can range from mild to severe, and can include rashes and hives; a sore, scratchy throat; headaches; difficulty breathing; swollen lips; and, in some cases, potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

If you or someone in your family is suffering from a food allergy, do not take it lightly. Seek medical attention immediately, whether at an Integra Urgent Care clinic or an emergency room. While some food allergy reactions can be easily managed, it’s better to be safe when it comes to the potential of a severe allergic reaction.

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