Updated 15 May 2014

Protect yourself against food allergies

What can you do to prevent allergic reactions and what ingredients should you look out for in foods?

The majority of food allergies and intolerance reactions are caused by normal foods. Let’s take the example of milk. Most people use milk and milk products without experiencing any ill effects. However, individuals with a milk intolerance or allergy can react violently to any food that contains milk or milk byproducts.

Cow’s milk allergy
Cow’s milk allergy is very common in children and approximately 2-7,5% of young children react to cow’s milk. The allergic reactions are caused by a whole range of proteins that occur in cow’s milk. The main components of cow’s milk protein are whey and casein. Some children are only allergic to one of these components, while others react to both. Of the two components, the whey, which is the watery part that is left over when milk curdles and the solid part is removed, tends to cause most of the problems.

Now this is bad news because nowadays so many food products contain whey and/or milk byproducts. So if you or your children suffer from cow’s milk allergy/intolerance you need to be on the look-out for the following when you buy processed foods:<

  • Milk, buttermilk, milk solids
  • Whey, whey powder
  • Curds, lactose, casein, caseinate (e.g. calcium caseinate, etc)
  • Margarine, cream, cheese, butter, yoghurt
  • Lactalbumin, lactoglobulin
  • Caramel colour

If you see any of these components on a food label, don’t use it if you have a milk allergy.

This list illustrates how easy it is to be exposed to cow’s milk and its byproducts even if you never drink a glass of milk. So be vigilant and read the labels.

Health tip: If you have a cow’s milk allergy/intolerance and cut out all foods that contain the above-mentioned list of ingredients, you will run the risk of developing calcium, riboflavin and vitamin D deficiencies. Contact your nearest dietician who will help you to work out a milk-free diet. You also need to take calcium, vitamin B and vitamin D supplements.

Another problem that often complicates the management of food allergies and intolerances is the condition known as cross-reactivity. Someone who is allergic to cow’s milk proteins may also be allergic to the milk proteins in the milk of goats and sheep. About 60% of children with cow’s milk allergy will also react to goat’s milk.

Allergy to soy protein
Most children with cow’s milk allergy are given soy milk substitutes. In 50% of these children, an allergy to soy protein can also develop. If you are allergic to soy proteins, then scan food labels for the following ingredients and if the food contains any one of them, don’t eat that food.

  • Soya/soy protein, vegetable protein, textured or hydrolysed vegetable protein
  • Gum arabic, carob, bulking agent
  • Lecithin, miso, tofu, MSG
  • Emulsifier, guar gum, stabilizer
  • Vegetable broth, gum or starch
  • Protein extender
  • Soya flour, nuts, panthetol, protein, protein isolate
  • Soy sauce, soybean, soybean oil

It’s scary how many ingredients are derived from soybeans. You will find that practically all processed meat products such as viennas, cold meats, sausages, meat pies, and hamburgers contain one of the above mentioned ingredients that are derived from soybeans. Take a careful look at all soups, sauces, and canned meats as these may also contain one or more of the soy products.

Breastfeeding mothers should also remember that the proteins in soybeans, which cause allergic reactions, can be excreted in breast milk. If a mother eats breakfast cereals that contain soy proteins (look on the label), her breast milk will also contain these proteins, which may cause an allergic reaction in her baby.

Egg allergy
Many individuals, especially children, are allergic to eggs. The following ingredients in processed foods signal that the product contains ingredients derived from eggs:

  • Egg, egg white, egg yellow, yolk
  • Albumin, binder, coagulant
  • Globulin, lysozyme, livetin, lecithin
  • Ovalbumin, ovamucin

Life preservers
If you and/or any member of your family is allergic or intolerant to a food, beware and be vigilant. You need to read every food label and if necessary phone the manufacturer to find out if a specific food contains the ingredient that causes the allergic reaction.

If in doubt, don’t buy or eat a food you are uncertain about. - (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc)


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Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies. obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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