What is a Food Allergen? – The 8 Most Common Food Allergens

What is a food allergen and why is it important to take note of it?  A food allergen can sometimes cause an allergic reaction in people.  Allergic reactions can range from mild to fatal.  There are 8 common food allergens (worldwide, including South Africa) which cause allergic reactions in some people.

Eight Common Food Allergens

You can find the foods containing allergens everywhere globally, and most people eat one or more of these foods daily, but not all people are affected by these allergens.  Only a small segment of the population develop allergies to certain types of food.

8 Common food allergens you find worldwide, including South Africa

The eight major food allergens that are responsible for most of the serious food allergic reactions worldwide and in South Africa are:

  1. Peanuts – allergic reactions to peanuts cause the most fatalities worldwide.
  2. Tree nuts – fatalities to tree nut allergies are close on the heels of peanuts.
  3. Milk
  4. Eggs
  5. Wheat
  6. Soy
  7. Fish
  8. Crustacean shellfish

Food allergens are not limited to the food products mentioned above, but other food allergens are not as common as the ones listed.

Understanding Food Allergies

A food allergy is a medical condition affecting millions of people worldwide.  Food allergies are serious and potentially life-threatening and should be taken seriously.

Our body’s immune system normally detects and destroys germs, such as bacteria or viruses, that make us sick.  Food allergens are not bacteria or a virus but a food protein that can trigger a harmful immune response.

This means your immune system mistakenly starts attacking a completely harmless food protein.  This is called an allergic reaction and such an attack from your body’s immune system can have serious consequences.

Symptoms of an Allergic Reaction

The symptoms of an allergic reaction to food can range from mild to severe.  The most common food allergy signs and symptoms are:

  • Hives, itching or eczema on the skin
  • Trouble breathing
  • Tingling or itching in the mouth
  • Swelling (face, lips, tongue, throat or other parts of the body)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness

Some people can react severely to food allergens which can trigger an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.  This is life-threatening and emergency treatment is critical. Untreated, anaphylaxis can cause a coma or even death.

If you’re highly sensitive to a food allergen, even breathing it in or having it touch your skin can trigger a reaction.

Who are at Risk?

While there is no cure for food allergies, children can outgrow them. Adults are much less likely to do so.

  • Age: Young children are more likely to develop food allergies than older children or adults (though allergies can start at any age).
  • Family history: Having a parent or sibling with a food allergy increases your risk.
  • Having another food allergy: People with food allergies tend to have more than one.


Food allergens are classified as a food safety hazard and should be taken seriously by all food handling enterprises.  It is important to inform consumers of all food products containing food allergens.

It is also the consumer’s responsibility with a food allergy to take extra precautions when purchasing and consuming foods.

Keep your child with a food allergy save by informing all relevant parties like caregivers, friends, family and schools.  It is also important to educate your child about his/her conditions.

At ASC Consultants, we provide training and consulting on all food safety-related matters in South Africa, including food allergen identification, cross-contamination prevention and labelling requirements.

You are welcome to leave a comment in the comment section or contact us if you have any questions.

8 thoughts on “What is a Food Allergen? – The 8 Most Common Food Allergens”

  1. Hey! Someone in my Facebook group shared this website
    with us so I came to look it over. I’m definitely enjoying the information. I’m bookmarking and will be tweeting this to my followers!
    Exceptional blog and great design and style.

  2. Thanks a lot for the uplifting & educational article.

    The information you shared about “allergic reaction” is an eye-opener for me. I am not aware of the exact reason for allergies and thanks for sharing. The video you embedded is very informative.

    I am really shocked when I read about anaphylaxis, never ever thought allergies might result in coma or death.

    You not only discussed the problems and symptoms but you have provided some great advice which is very helpful. I do appreciate the service of ASC Consultants.

    Much Success!


    • Great to meet you Paul,
      Thank you for the comment. Although only a small segment of the population has food allergies it can have a serious effect on their health. A severe allergic reaction resulting in anaphylaxis can happen very quickly.

      It ranges from immediate to about 30 minutes after consuming or coming in contact with a food allergen. In most cases, it is just not enough time to get medical help and fatalities do occur.

      Most people with severe food allergy reactions normally carries an EpiPen which has injectable epinephrine. This is a lifesaving device and they will go nowhere without it.

      Have a great day!

  3. It’s great you have drawn the distinction between peanuts and tree nuts. Some people just see them as being one and the same.

    What kinds of treatment should be people be seeking for reactions? 

    I did break out into hives when I was young after eating crab. I had eaten it probably 40 times prior to the incident and I didn’t eat crab again for close to 16 years. I had no reaction then and have been reaction free ever since. Any suggestions as to what may have caused it? seems like it was a once off.

    • Nice to meet you Peter,

      Peanuts are not nuts like tree nuts. They grow underground and are part of another plant family, legumes. Other examples of legumes are soybean (another common food allergen), beans, peas and lentils. This does not mean a person who is allergic to peanuts is automatically allergic to all legumes. They can be allergic to one or more.

      If someone suspects they have a food allergy reaction they should seek medical advice immediately. Not all allergic reactions are severe but they can become dangerous. You will never know. You can have a look at my response to Paul about anaphylaxis.

      Our bodies are sometimes a mystery and you cannot always tell how it will react. I recommend caution. An allergic reaction can return and sometimes with vengeance.

      Have a great day!

  4. Great post! I like the way you explained the food allergies part, you really made it easy to understand. I had an allergic reaction once after eating a mushroom and mozzarella pizza. The following morning my eyes were all swollen. But I ate the same pizza from another place and I never had an allergic reaction, how can you explain that? 

    It took me a couple of years to eat the same kind of pizza again. I had no reaction. Do you think my body changed and was not allergic to those proteins anymore? Or maybe there was something else in the pizza that triggered the allergy? How can I possibly identify it?.


    • Nice to meet you Adyns,

      Thank you for leaving a comment. I am glad you have enjoyed the post.

      It would be difficult to say what caused your allergic reaction and dangerous to speculate, but I do suggest you practice caution with allergic reactions. It is always a good idea to rather seek medical advice.

      Have a look at my replies to Peter and Paul’s comments.

      Have a great day!


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