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Living With Food Allergies and Sensitivities

Jennifer Harshman

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Imagine being unable to eat anything at work, school, amusement parks, or restaurants. Imagine attending a birthday party, and having no choice but to pass on the pizza, the cake and ice cream, and even the drinks.

This is life for Joel Harshman, age 6, and his sister Rebecca Harshman, age 5. They have food allergies and sensitivities, and they can have only allergen-free foods made from scratch. Anything that their parents do not know for certain to be safe is off-limits. They don't have the luxury of enjoying food in social situations, and they can't take for granted that they will be able to eat anywhere except in their own home. They have to research every food and personal care item before they buy it, not just once, but every time.

More than 12 million Americans have food allergies, and most of those people are aware of their allergies. Millions more have food sensitivities, and most of them are not aware of it. Patrick Holford, co-author of Hidden Food Allergies, says, “I would estimate that one in three people suffers [from a food sensitivity]. " For some people who are allergic or sensitive, avoiding the dangerous food is not difficult and they rarely think about it. For others, food allergies and sensitivities define, dominate and dictate their lives.

Allergic responses are usually noticeable, though not always. Food sensitivities, conversely, can go undetected for a lifetime. The most dangerous and most common food sensitivity is that to gluten and/or casein, proteins found in grains (wheat, rye, barley, and triticale) and milk (all dairy products) and their derivatives. Untreated gluten sensitivity can lead to serious conditions, including Celiac's Disease and bowel cancers. The list of symptoms connected to food sensitivity is too long to list here, but some of the common ones are headaches, problems with memory or concentration, food cravings, difficulty losing weight, digestive or bowel problems, and irritability or mood swings.

If you suspect you may have a food allergy or sensitivity, discuss it with your doctor. Treatment involves simply avoiding the offending food(s). For people with gluten and casein sensitivity, this means looking for “Gluten Free" and “Casein Free" on labels, and avoiding wheat, rye, barley, triticale, all dairy products and all of their derivatives. More than 200 terms are used for these ingredients on food labels. For a list of the terms commonly used on labels that mean wheat and dairy, see

Food manufacturers are now listing the top eight allergens on labels, which makes it much easier to avoid dangerous ingredients. The Food Allergy and Anaphylactic Network lists the top eight food allergens as wheat, milk, egg, fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts; these eight allergens cause more than 90% of all food allergies.

Following a special diet for food allergies and sensitivities isn't always a lifetime endeavor. Many people find that after a time, they are able to reintroduce those foods under their doctor's supervision. Joel and Rebecca are still holding onto their hope for a normal life.

Jennifer Harshman is a teacher and mother of three, dedicated to educating the public about the connection between certain foods and illness. For more information send email to or visit


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