Babies, Kids, Nutrition, Toddlers

The Big 8 Allergens: What You Need to Know

Whether your child is a few months or a few years old, you’ve likely heard about the dangers of food allergies. But did you know that 90% of all food allergies in the United States are caused by only eight foods? Even if your kids aren’t affected by the so-called “Big 8” allergens, you probably have a close friend or family member with children who are.

What is a Food Allergy?

A food allergy occurs when a person’s immune system reacts to a particular food as though it were harmful. To fight off the allergen, the immune system produces antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE), which may lead to respiratory, gastrointestinal or cardiovascular distress.

5 Fast Facts About Food Allergies

  1. Symptoms: Food allergy reactions range from mildly unpleasant, like hives or wheezing, to significant and life-threatening, like anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that causes the body to go into shock.
  2. Prevalence: Food allergies are more common among children than adults. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, in 2015, over 4 million children in the U.S. had known food allergies.
  3. Cure: While allergists are working on cures for food allergies, avoidance is currently the most common treatment. 80% of children with milk, egg, soy, or wheat allergies may eventually outgrow the allergy, while allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are more often lifelong.
  4. Development: It is possible to develop a food allergy at any age, even to foods you’ve eaten many times before.
  5. Seriousness: Food allergies are not the same as food intolerance. Food intolerances may lead to discomfort, but they do not involve the same measurable immune system response.

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What Are the Big 8 Allergens?

Despite there being more than 170 known food allergens, the vast majority of allergic reactions in the United States are caused by the Big 8 allergens below.

1. Milk

Prevalence: An estimated 2–6% of children under 6

Cow’s milk is the most common food allergy in kids, but around 80% will outgrow the allergy before reaching school age.

Is a milk allergy the same as lactose intolerance? No. People with lactose intolerance lack the enzyme lactase, which digests the sugars in milk. While lactose intolerance may cause unpleasant symptoms like bloating or diarrhea, a milk allergy is more serious and involves an IgE-mediated immune system response.

2. Egg

Prevalence: An estimated 2–6% of children under 6

Most children, around 67%, will outgrow their egg allergy before reaching age 5.

Egg Whites vs. Egg Yolks: Although it’s the egg whites that contain the most allergenic proteins, doctors recommend total avoidance of eggs, as it is impossible to completely separate the yolks from the whites.

3. Soy

Prevalence: An estimated 1–2% of children under 10

What are common soy-based foods? If you’re allergic to soy, pay special attention when selecting vegetarian proteins and many Asian-inspired foods—both often contain soy-based products including, but not limited to:

  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Edamame
  • Miso
  • Soy Sauce or Tamari
  • Soy Milk

4. Wheat

Prevalence: An estimated 0.4–1% of children under 6

About 20% of wheat-allergic children are also allergic to other gluten-containing grains like barley, oats and rye. Most children with a wheat allergy will outgrow it before school age.

Is a wheat allergy the same as celiac disease? No. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease of the small intestine which requires one to avoid all sources of gluten, including but not limited to wheat. While celiac disease does involve an immune system response, IgE, the antibody responsible for life-threatening reactions, does not play a role in this disorder.

5. Peanuts

Prevalence: An estimated 0.6–1.3% of the general population

Despite the name, peanuts are actually not a nut but rather a legume, like soy. However, as many as 40% of all people with peanut allergies also have tree nut allergies.

Nut-Free vs. Peanut-Free: If your child is allergic to peanuts, be sure to double check any “nut-free snacks” because “nut-free” doesn’t always mean “peanut-free.” Many nut-free snacks are also peanut-free, but it’s safest to look for the “peanut-free” label when choosing school-safe snacks.

6. Tree Nuts

Prevalence: An estimated 0.4–0.6% of the general population

People with tree nut allergies may be allergic to a single tree nut, a small subset of tree nuts or all tree nuts. Common tree nut allergens include:

  • Almonds
  • Brazil nuts
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnuts
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Pecans
  • Pine nuts
  • Pistachios
  • Walnuts

The FDA also lists coconut as a tree nut, but coconut allergies are relatively uncommon, and most people with tree nut allergies can safely consume it.

7. Fish

Prevalence: An estimated 0.4% of the general population

Unlike many other foods, fish allergies most commonly appear in adulthood, not childhood. Reactions also tend to be comparatively severe.

Is a fish allergy the same as a seafood allergy? No. The general category of “seafood” comprises both finned fish and shellfish. Someone with a finned fish allergy may or may not be allergic to shellfish (and vice versa).

Common finned fish allergens include:

  • Anchovies
  • Halibut
  • Mahi Mahi
  • Salmon
  • Tuna

8. Shellfish

Prevalence: An estimated 1.2% of the general population

Shellfish fall under two different groups:

  • Crustaceans: crab, shrimp, lobster
  • Mollusks: clams, mussels, octopus, oysters, scallops, squid

Some are allergic to both groups, while some are allergic only to one.

Dr. Steve Handoyo is a Clinical Associate of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the University of Chicago. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please visit his University of Chicago page or call 773.702.6169.

Nurture Life’s Allergy Promise to You

If your child has food allergies, you know the importance of understanding exactly what is (and isn’t) in their meals and snacks. And as parents ourselves, we at Nurture Life understand, too!

We’ve put allergy-friendly practices at the heart of our kid-focused food and nutrition philosophy:

  • We maintain a state-of-the-art food production facility with top food safety practices and certifications.
  • Our allergy-friendly meals for toddlers and kids are safe for school.
  • We use meal tags to help you identify vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, milk-free, egg-free and soy-free meal options.
  • Our baby, toddler and kids meals and production facilities are completely free from peanuts and tree nuts (except coconut).

Nurture Life takes the health of your children seriously and would be happy to help you in any way that we can. If you have questions about the Big 8 allergens, our ingredients or our allergy-friendly facilities, please email our child nutrition team at

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Dr. Steve Handoyo

Dr. Steve Handoyo is a Clinical Associate of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the University of Chicago. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please visit his University of Chicago page or call 773.702.6169.

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