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Allergens in food: scientific advice updated

EFSA has updated its scientific advice on food allergens. The Authority’s Scientific Opinion looks in detail at all the allergenic products and substances whose presence in food must be indicated on labelling, according to EU law. These include cereals containing gluten protein found in wheat, barley and rye. The symptoms of coeliac disease are triggered by the ingestion of gluten., milk, eggs, nuts, peanuts, soybeans, fish, crustaceans, molluscs, celery, lupin, sesame, mustard and sulphites.

The Opinion is based on a review of all published data on the prevalence The proportion of a population found to have a condition. of food allergies in Europe. For each food product or substance on the EU list of allergens, information is given on:

  • the prevalence of allergies in unselected populations;
  • proteins identified as food allergens;
  • cross-reactivities;
  • the effects of food processing on the allergenicity The ability to trigger an abnormal immune response that leads to an allergic reaction in a person. of the food or ingredient Any substance deliberately added to a foodstuff which will remain in the finished product, even in an altered form.;
  • methods for detecting allergens and allergenic foods, including mass spectrometry and DNA A complex chain-like molecule that carries the genetic material, present in living organisms and some viruses. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is capable of copying itself and carries the instructions for all the proteins used to create and sustain life. methods as well as the more common immunological approach;
  • doses observed to trigger adverse reactions in sensitive individuals.

EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition The science of how diet relates to the body's need for sustenance. and Allergies (NDA) points out that the prevalence of food allergies is difficult to establish because of a scarcity of studies available for some geographical areas and the use of different methodologies to gather prevalence data. However, using food challenges as a criterion for diagnosis, the prevalence of food allergies across Europe has been estimated at around 1% for both adults and children.

About 75% of allergic reactions among children are caused by egg, peanut, cows’ milk, fish and nuts. About 50% of allergic reactions among adults are to fruits of the latex group and of the Rosaceae family (which includes apples, pears cherries, raspberries, strawberries and almonds), vegetables of the Apiaceae family (which includes celery, carrots and aromatic herbs) and various nuts and peanuts.

The NDA Panel notes that the desirability of determining thresholds for certain allergenic foods has attracted much attention from regulatory bodies, consumer associations and industry. The Scientific Opinion summarises the available risk assessment  A specialised field of applied science that involves reviewing scientific data and studies in order to evaluate risks associated with certain hazards. It involves four steps: hazard identification, hazard characterisation, exposure assessment and risk characterisation. approaches that could assist risk management The management of risks which have been identified by risk assessment. It includes the planning, implementation and evaluation of any resulting actions taken to protect consumers, animals and the environment. decisions on allergen labelling. These are: the traditional risk assessment using the no observed adverse effect A change in the health, growth, behaviour or development of an organism that impairs its ability to develop or survive level ( NOAEL The no observed adverse effect level (NOAEL) is the greatest concentration or amount of a substance at which no detectable adverse effects occur in an exposed population.) approach and uncertainty Scientific concept used in risk assessment to describe all types of limitations in available knowledge at the time an assessment is conducted, with the agreed resources, that affect the probability of possible outcomes to the assessment. factors; the bench mark dose ( BMD The benchmark dose (BMD) is the minimum dose of a substance that produces a clear, low level health risk, usually in the range of a 1-10% change in a specific toxic effect such as cancer induction.) and margin of exposure A tool used in risk assessment to explore safety concerns arising from the presence of a potentially toxic substance in food or animal feed. (MoE) approach; and probabilistic models. The Panel emphasises that the purpose of the risk assessment – for example, exemption from labelling – and the level of risk which may be acceptable, are risk management decisions, and therefore are outside EFSA’s remit.The Panel recommends that food consumption surveys be adapted to gather data on food consumption patterns in food allergic subjects and to investigate how these relate to the general, non-food allergic population.

EFSA’s Scientific Opinion relates to immune-mediated food allergies, to coeliac disease, and to adverse reactions to sulphites in food. It does not address non-immune mediated adverse reactions to food, often known as food intolerances. The document updates EFSA’s previous Opinion on allergens, which was published in 2004.

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