The Allergen 8

For whatever reason (various theories abound), we humans are racking up quite the list of allergens and intolerance in our diet. And I’ve noticed it’s not just humans–have you noticed the rise in allergy issues in your family dog?

This has been more on my mind thanks to planning for the Great American Bake Sale, Helper Monkey Style! in 2 weeks. I try to stay conscious of my guests food preferences when I plan a party menu, but when baking for strangers? The word that comes to mind is “vigilance.”

We want happy, healthy bake sale customers on the 28th, and one way we can ensure that is by carefully labeling our baked goodies with the basic ingredient list, highlighting the eight most common food allergens:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts (such as almonds, cashews, walnuts)
  • Fish (such as bass, cod, flounder)
  • Shellfish (such as crab, lobster, shrimp)
  • Soy
  • Wheat

(list via The Mayo Clinic)

But what’s the difference between an allergy, an intolerance and a sensitivity?

To qualify as an allergy, the body’s reaction is violent: hives, swelling, system shutdown. Your system declares all-out war on a substance and your body is the battlefield. Consuming products you know you’re allergic to can be life-threatening; even when the allergic response is mild, continued exposure can bring rapid escalation of the systems and the outcome.

Intolerance, on the other hand, is the body’s inability to process an enzyme in the food, creating unfortunate side-effects. Lactose intolerance means your body doesn’t produce enough lactase, for instance. To combat it we either take a pill that gives our body the needed lactase, consume dairy products that have been specially treated to combat the lack of lactase, or use a dairy substitute.   Being sensitive to a certain ingredient or additive means you experience certain unfortunate consequences when you eat or drink whatever it is, but it’s unlikely to kill you.

Sensitivity, though, is a middle ground. Each person can be more or less sensitive to a food, and wish to avoid it to improve their quality of life. For instance, I have a friend who went gluten-free to help her migraines and it helped, for a while at least. Another friend avoids gluten because she feels fuzzy-headed and sluggish if she eats it, and likes to be clear-headed. MSG sensitivity causes lots of headaches to folks in the US (pun intended). Like intolerance, though, it’s not going to kill you if you eat something you’re sensitive to, you just might feel pretty bad afterwards.

Your average bake sale is going to be full of wheat, eggs, and milk, with a good chance of peanuts or tree nuts as well. Somehow I don’t see a high probability of fish and shellfish being on our table, but it’s all up to the volunteers and what they choose to bake!

My to-bake list included mini pound cakes (perfect with some farmer’s market strawberries, mmm!), double chocolate muffins and I think I’m going to make up a big batch of spinach puffs just to have something different available.


  1. Karyn Zoldan


    Thanks for defining the differences.

    Milk makes me gag. I stopped drinking white milk when I stopped drinking the bottle. While I can have a tiny bit of milk with cereal, I often feel bloated afterwards. I choose soy milk for cereal. I can drink buttermilk in small doses and half & half but not milk.

    I also have a sensitivity to tarragon. One time it made me gag in a restaurant and now when I get a whiff of the scent the gag reflex starts. Odd.

    I have a friend who cannot eat raw onions or too much garlic. Another friend who is intolerant of eggs & dairy and allergic to nuts.

    While growing up my mother told me she almost died while eating a cucumber. She didn’t give details. So I didn’t eat any cucumbers until I was an adult.

    She also told me I would die if I ate bacon (she kept kosher). I ate it anyway and my mouth was in heaven.

  2. Jennifer Walker

    Okay, that bit about the bacon it too funny!

    The mind-body connection is always interesting.

    I got sick when eating turnips as a child and it wasn’t until I was in Culinary School that I was brave enough to try them again. In my mind, they’d make me sick again, but it wasn’t the case. Now I love them.

    I admit, though, having to explain what a sensitivity is can be a pain in the rump roast–sometimes it’s just plain easier to say I’m allergic to tomatoes rather than go into the various -mines that my body doesn’t get along with.

  3. Lyss

    Under the subject of “Intolerance”…did you mean to say “…,but it’s unlikely to kill you.”? Otherwise my mom’s trying to kill me with tomato on my burger ~lame chuckle~ yuck @ raw tomatoes.

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