Allergenic Foods and their Allergens: The Big 8

There’s been a rise in food allergies in recent decades. This is partly due to better diagnostic techniques and greater awareness. That’s not the whole story, however. It seems that more people nowadays are struggling with food allergies than ever before. Food allergy symptoms can range from mild, such as minor stomach upsets, to much more severe reactions that can result in anaphylactic shock. By being aware of allergenic foods and the substances in them that provoke these reactions, you can be better prepared to deal with food allergies in yourself or others.

The Big 8

Eight foods are particularly likely to cause food allergies. Over 90 percent of all diagnosed food allergies involve these foods. For this reason, they’ve been nicknamed ‘the Big 8.’ Allergies to these foods are so widespread that they must be declared on food labeling under the FALCPA (the United States’ food allergen labeling act). These foods are peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, fish, crustacean shellfish, soybeans, and wheat.


The peanut (also known as the ground-nut) is a legume. It is very widely consumed throughout the world, serving as a staple crop in many regions. Peanuts are commonly found in Asian food. Although peanut allergies are rarer than allergies to, say, milk, they tend to be especially severe. Peanut reactions can cause swelling of the airways, anaphylaxis, and possibly vomiting. A peanut allergy can very easily prove fatal. For many sufferers, even the smallest trace of peanut can be enough to precipitate a dangerous allergic reaction. Even skin creams containing peanut-derived oils can trigger a reaction.

Tree nuts

Similarly to peanuts, tree nuts can cause swelling, vomiting, and anaphylaxis. Tree nuts include several popular nuts like hazelnuts, almonds, and walnuts—exposure by handling or even inhaling the fumes while cooking can cause a reaction.


Eggs can be difficult to avoid, as they are often used as a cooking ingredient and may be hidden in foods. Some sufferers are only allergic to the yolk (yellow part) or only to the glair (white part), while others are allergic to the whole egg. Swelling, anaphylaxis, and vomiting after eating eggs are signs of an egg allergy.


Milk allergies should not be confused with lactose intolerance. Lactose is a sugar that’s naturally present in milk. Not everyone can produce the enzyme that allows humans to digest this sugar, leading to lactose intolerance. While unpleasant and harmful to your health if not diagnosed and addressed, lactose intolerance isn’t as dangerous as an actual milk allergy. Milk can cause stomach upsets, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and nasal congestion. It can also cause skin eruptions such as hives, dermatitis, and blisters. In severe cases, milk can cause anaphylaxis.


An allergy to fish can sometimes cause vomiting and irritation of the mouth, as well as respiratory reactions and anaphylaxis. Some sufferers are only sensitive to particular species, while others are allergic to all fish.

Crustacean shellfish

Crustacean shellfish allergies are separate from other fish allergies. Sufferers may be allergic to specific species or all crustacean species. Symptoms are wide-ranging, including rhinitis, eye irritation, respiratory disorders, gastrointestinal disturbances, and anaphylaxis.


These legumes can cause vomiting and anaphylaxis.


Not to be confused with gluten intolerance, wheat allergies can cause every conceivable type of allergic symptom. The skin, respiratory system, GI tract, and even the brain can be affected. One of the best-known forms of wheat allergy is Celiac Disease, a severe disorder of the GI tract. Anaphylaxis is possible.

Allergies to these foods can be life-threatening. If you or someone in your household has a food allergy, you must keep appropriate medication on hand at all times. If you’re a person in a position of responsibility (such as a teacher, caregiver, or manager), you should be aware of any allergy sufferers in the group you oversee and know how to respond effectively. Allergic reactions can kill in a very short period, and a swift response can make the difference between life and death.

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