Food Allergy

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Food Allergy Triggers & Where They Hide

Quick GuideAllergy List: Watch Out for the Most Common Food Allergies

Allergy List: Watch Out for the Most Common Food Allergies

What causes allergic reactions to food?

Both heredity and environmental factors may play a role in the development of food allergy. The allergens in food are those ingredients that are responsible for inciting an allergic reaction. They are proteins that usually resist the heat of cooking, the acid in the stomach, and the intestinal digestive enzymes. As a result, the allergens survive to cross the gastrointestinal lining, enter the bloodstream causing allergic reactions throughout the body. The mechanism of food allergy involves the immune system and heredity.

Immune system: An allergic reaction to food involves two components of the immune system. One component is a type of protein, an allergy antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE), which circulates through the blood. The other is the mast cell, a specialized cell that stores up histamine and is found in all tissues of the body. The mast cell is particularly found in areas of the body that are typically involved in allergic reactions, including the nose and throat, lungs, skin, and gastrointestinal tract.

Heredity: The tendency of an individual to produce IgE against something seemingly as innocuous as food appears to be inherited. Generally, people with allergies come from families in which allergies are common -- not necessarily to food but perhaps allergies to pollen, fur, feathers, or drugs. Thus, a person with two allergic parents is more likely to develop food allergies than someone with one allergic parent.

Mechanism: Food allergy is a hypersensitivity reaction, meaning that before an allergic reaction to an allergen in food can occur, a person needs to have been exposed previously, or "sensitized," to the food. At the initial exposure, the allergen stimulates lymphocytes (specialized white blood cells) to produce the IgE antibody that is specific for the allergen. This IgE then is released and attaches to the surface of the mast cells in different tissues of the body. The next time the person eats that particular food, its allergen hones in on the specific IgE antibody on the surface of the mast cells and prompts the cells to release chemicals such as histamine. Depending upon the tissue in which they are released, these chemicals cause the various symptoms of food allergy.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/8/2015

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