Food allergies

BfR is actively engaged in the research and assessment of food allergen sources. With its information BfR helps consumers concerned to make the right food choice.

Eggs, nuts or dairy products – consumers can react to foods with many different intolerances. This does not always involve an allergy: a food allergy is an enhanced, specific defence reaction of the immune system to foods or food ingredients (allergens).

Food intolerances include enzyme defects (eg lactose intolerance), toxic and pseudo allergic reactions. They are no allergies because the immune system is not involved. Humans with non-allergic intolerances can often tolerate – as opposed to allergic persons – small amounts of the substance concerned without any complaints.

Trigger of allergies

Allergens are normally harmless proteins which are, however, perceived as a threat by the immune system of allergic persons. Through the contact with the allergen antibodies of the IgE type are formed in the body. The antibodies get through blood and the lymph into the tissue and bind to mast cells (tissue cells) which have specific combining sites for antibodies and to certain leucocytes (basophilic granulocytes). Following a further contact with the allergens the latter are bound to the antibodies on the mast cells. Through the release of allergenic messenger substances such as histamine from the mast cells there is a manifestation of the allergy. The reactions are individually different.


Typical symptoms of an allergy are rash, itching, nettle (urticaria), eczema, urge to sneeze, permanent rhinitis, swollen and lachrymal eyes, reactions of the respiratory tract such as asthma, breathlessness or swelling of the oral mucosa and nausea, diarrhoea, flatulence or inflammation of the gastric and intestinal mucosa.

The strongest allergic reaction is the anaphylactic shock which results in a failure of the cardiovascular system and can then lead to death and hence requires rapid, selective medical treatment.

Frequent allergenic foods

The most important allergenic foods in childhood are cow milk and chicken egg, fish, soya, wheat and peanuts / nuts. Peanuts, fish, chicken egg and cow milk are also important food allergens for adults. Allergic reactions to chicken egg and cow milk disappear, however, frequently during the first years of age.

Allergies can be prevented

Between 2 and 3% of adults and 4% of infants have allergic reactions to certain food ingredients. Knowledge about allergens is important since allergic reactions can be avoided if there is no contact with the allergens.

BfR encourages, therefore, information gathering about allergens and their occurrence. With its information BfR helps consumers concerned to make the right food choice for themselves.

For that reason BfR recommends a better labelling of allergens on food packaging. Within the framework of its risk assessment, its risk communication and its scientific work, BfR contributes towards a better protection of consumers concerned against allergenic substances.

The Committee for Nutrition, Dietetic Products, Novel Foods and Allergies supports BfR in its tasks.

Allergy prevention

It is known from many studies that the development of allergies is not only dependent on genetic predisposition but also, for instance, on whether a mother smokes during pregnancy or the diet of a child during the first year of age (Infant Nutrition).

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