Hidden Sources Of Allergies

Many of the foods we eat every day have all types of hidden allergens in them, and even a very small amount can completely derail your health. Ten milligrams of a food allergen—about the size of a bread crumb—is enough to inflame your system for as long as six to eight weeks. Shocking, isn’t it!?

And yet these potential allergens lurk everywhere. Did you know, for example, that the wax used to coat non-organic apples and cucumbers is full of dairy proteins? A few bites of an apple may not cause a sudden reaction, but it can prolong the aggravation to your system. Did you know that many chewing gums have gluten in them? Or that anywhere you see “modified food starch” in an ingredient list, you should assume it is wheat or barley? Soy can hide in tea bags and lactose in melatonin supplements. Ten percent of wines are filtered with eggs and dairy, and there are at least fifty-seven different names for sugar, so unless you pore over a nutritional label carefully, you may miss it. All this makes it easy for allergens to go undetected. Unless you know the source of the sweetener (agave, pure maple syrup, honey, beet sugar, corn or rice syrup, date sugar, palm sugar, stevia, or molasses) you can guess it’s cane sugar.

Common Sources of Hidden Gluten

I find gluten to be one of the easier things to avoid. It’s by far the most well-known allergen, and things are more and more often labeled when they are gluten-free. When you are at a restaurant and can’t read the labels, just be diligent about making sure there isn’t any gluten lurking in soups or sauces, as flour can be used as a thickener. You also have to watch out for soy sauce, which is predominantly wheat. Soy sauce is added to lots of sauces and even salad dressings, so make sure you read the labels or ask.

  • Malt vinegar
  • Brewer’s yeast
  • Baking spray
  • Processed lunch meats and meatballs/meat loaf
  • Imitation crabmeat (such as that used in California rolls)
  • Tobiko (flying fish roe used in sushi)
  • Some vegetarian meat substitutes (like veggie burgers)
  • Frozen french fries
  • Soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce (they also contain soy)
  • Packaged salad dressings
  • Licorice and red licorice
  • Gummy candy
  • Play-Doh (be sure your children wash their hands after using it if they have a sensitivity to gluten)
  • Some vitamins and medications (be sure to ask your pharmacist)
  • Many packaged sauces, soups, and dressings, including those served at restaurants and fast-food places

Common Sources of Hidden Dairy

I have found dairy the most difficult allergen to avoid when eating out. I have had waitstaff and chefs ask me if “no dairy” includes butter, and have been “dairy-bombed” many times by a nonvigilant kitchens. Butter, along with salt, is used lavishly and universally in restaurant kitchens to create those rich, lush flavors we all look for when we are paying good money for a special meal; asking a restaurant to cook without either is like asking a drummer to play with one drumstick. So unless you are crystal clear that you are including butter among the things you must not eat, you may get a “dairy-free” meal full of butter. In defense of the restaurants, who certainly have no wish to make their patrons sick, it’s not surprising that they get confused, because some people avoid dairy because of an allergy to milk proteins and others because of sensitivity to milk sugars, and those in the latter camp can eat butter, which is low in sugars, or lactose. The bottom line is that most any restaurant meal will include butter somewhere along the line unless you insist otherwise, so it’s important to be specific with your waitstaff: “No milk products or butter, please.”

  • Salad dressings
  • “Health bars,” protein powders, and anything that contains whey protein or powdered milk
  • Some medications and supplements like melatonin
  • Any product whose label includes butter, milk or milk solids, ghee, curds
  • Casein and caseinates
  • Hydrolysates
  • Lactalbumin
  • Lactate solids
  • Lactic yeast
  • Lactitol monohydrate

Common Sources of Hidden Egg

I have found that the most commonly used egg product is mayonnaise. Many people add mayonnaise (or aioli, a flavored mayonnaise) to sauces, salad dressings and dips. Egg is also a common binder, so it’s almost a given that it’s in every type of meatball, meat loaf, pressed meat, and things like fritters and veggie cakes. And unless you know a gluten-free baked good definitely doesn’t have eggs, you should assume it does. Some other places egg might be hidden include:

  • Candied nuts
  • Marshmallows
  • Processed meats and meatballs/meat loaf
  • “Velveted” Chinese meat or seafood dishes (“velveting” is a cooking technique in which ingredients are cooked in a sauce of egg whites and cornstarch)
  • Salad dressings
  • Flu shots and vaccines (you can request an egg-free shot, although they are usually reserved for those who have a histamine reaction to eggs, like facial or throat swelling)
  • Any product whose label includes: albumin, globulin, lecithin, livetin, lysozyme, vitellin, ovoglobulin

Common Sources of Hidden Soy

Soy seems to be the sneakiest of the allergens. The obvious versions like soy sauce and soy products like tofu and edamame are easy enough to find, but soy can be hidden in preservatives and obscure places like “artificial flavorings,” which are in nearly every packaged food. The great news is that all products covered by FDA labeling laws must be labeled if they contain soy. An interesting note: Vegetable oil derived from soy is safe for all but the most extremely soy-allergic individuals.

  • Tempeh
  • Tamari
  • Miso
  • Soy lecithin
  • Edamame
  • Tobiko (flying fish roe used in sushi)
  • Artificial flavorings
  • Vegetable broth
  • Vegetable gum (a thickener)
  • Vegetable starch
  • Tea bags (check labels)
  • Some vitamins and supplements (ask your pharmacist or read labels)

Consider donating any unopened packages to your local food bank and toss the rest. Now we can go about rebuilding your pantry.

Common and Uncommon Allergies

Why These Eight Foods in Particular?

Ninety percent of all food allergies in the United States are caused by the “Big 8”: dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, and Fish.

But I have added two others that are very common allergens that not everyone is aware of: Cane Sugar and Corn.

Cane sugar is one of the most prevalent ingredients in the American diet, and you will find it in just about every single packaged food in your market. The massive overconsumption of cane sugar is its own epidemic, and more and more people are finding that its negative effects run deeper than a sugar crash. Whether sensitivities and allergies to cane sugar are resulting from overexposure or genetic predispositions, they are happening all the same. Many naturopathic doctors who dispense the ELISA tests will tell you that it is consistently in the top six most common antibody reactions. I can attest to this—it happens to be an allergy trigger for Pia and an inflammatory trigger for many, (including myself and my mother) and let me tell you, it is very real. I wanted to include it in this list so those who know they have a problem with cane sugar will have recipe solutions and, for those of you who are open to the idea, a chance to explore other ways of sweetening your food. (But please don’t misinterpret this as encouragement to indulge in artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharine, and sucralose—I do not use them or endorse the use of them in any way.) However Agave, Honey, coconut sugar and organic non-GMO Beet Sugar are all part of our kitchen routine!


This is the most common allergen in infants and young children, and some would argue in adults as well. The most prevalent and precarious dairy allergies are typically an immune reaction to the caseins and whey proteins found in dairy. Funny enough, much less prevalent is (the usually genetically predetermined) lactose intolerance. This is characterized by an inability of the body to process the milk sugar lactose. The lactose intolerance type of dairy allergy is three times more likely in those of South Asian descent. Dairy can be anaphylactic, but more common allergic reactions to dairy can include symptoms in the GI tract, skin, or airways, typically within an hour of ingestion or less. Lactose intolerant reactions are more typically based in the stomach and intestines. Also many people experience skin inflammation (think acne) as a result of consuming dairy products.


Eggs are the second most prevalent food allergy. It is more common to be allergic to proteins in the egg white than the egg yolk. Eggs can cause anaphylaxis for some people. While skin and airway reactions can occur as soon as the egg is ingested, most egg reactions tend to reveal themselves in the stomach and intestines, and the severity and time frame can vary from almost immediate to up to 48 hours after ingestion. Eggs allergies commonly present themselves in either diarrhea or chronic constipation. In our house they also leave a trail of eczema behind.


While this is the most well marketed food allergen, it is actually the third most prevalent. Reactions to gluten are diverse. They can be as severe as anaphylaxis; a range skin symptoms like hives and rashes; and/or stomach and GI effects like nausea, vomiting, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea. Sinus and lung issues are also common, since the nasal and lung tissues can become inflamed, leading to a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, and postnasal drip as well as wheezing and asthmatic coughing. Headaches and joint swelling are also common complaints. Many reactions occur instantly, though others might not be noticed until the morning after. A gluten allergy or sensitivity can also be triggered environmentally by cosmetics or beauty products, depending on how sensitive you are. And I always think it is interesting to note that gluten can cause more dramatic symptoms in an individual with a gluten allergy or sensitivity than someone with celiac disease. So you do not have to have celiac disease to experience these symptoms.


Soybeans are part of the legume family, although having an allergy to soy does not mean you have a greater chance of being allergic to other members of the legume family such as peanuts or beans. Rarely, anaphylaxis can occur as a reaction to soy, but other more common reactions range from hives and an “itchy mouth” to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. A stuffy nose, wheezing, and asthmatic coughing are also often associated with this allergy.

Tree Nuts

Tree nuts include walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios, pecans, pine nuts, and Brazil nuts. Nut-allergic people usually tend to react to multiple varieties of nuts. For example, there is typically a link between cashews and pistachios. Tree nuts do not include peanuts or sesame seeds, although those too can be allergens. Along with peanuts and shellfish, this is one of the food categories most likely to cause anaphylaxis. Most people with tree nut allergies discover the allergy in childhood, and roughly 90 percent experience a lifelong allergy. It is important to note that siblings and children of tree nut–allergic people are at an increased risk for tree nut allergies as well. These allergies can range in severity from anaphylaxis to other histamine reactions like shortness of breath; itching; or swelling of the throat, face, eyes, or mouth. They can also trigger abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. For extra-sensitive people, nut particles in the air and tree nut oils may be just as likely to cause a reaction as ingestion. Tree nut oils can be found in beauty products, lotions, and soaps, so check the labels if you are reacting to these products.


Peanuts, a member of the legume family, have a high trigger rate of anaphylaxis. Between 25 and 40 percent of individuals with a peanut allergy are also reactive to at least one tree nut, but a peanut allergy does not mean you are at an increased risk for allergy to other legumes such as soy. Siblings and children of peanut-allergic people are at an increased risk for peanut allergies. Up to 20 percent of peanut-allergic people find they grow out of the allergy or that the allergy becomes far less severe. For people who are most sensitive to peanuts, even trace amounts or, in rare cases, peanut particles in the air can cause severe reactions. Anaphylactic symptoms are almost instantaneous, as are less severe histamine reactions like itchy skin, throat, and mouth or welts. Peanuts can also cause nausea or a stuffy or runny nose.


OK, here is the deal, “Shellfish” encompasses two families: crustaceans and mollusks. Crustacean shellfish allergies (to lobster, crab, crawfish, prawns, and shrimp) tend to be more severe as well as more common, with lobster, crab, and shrimp causing the majority of reactions. Mollusks is a much larger group that includes scallops, clams, mussels, oysters, marine snails, and abalone as well as octopus and squid. Those allergic to mollusks may find that they also have reactions to non-dietary invertebrates like cockroaches and dust mites. If you are allergic to one group, you may be able to eat from the other without being affected. You may also find that only one or two species effect you from one of the groups, (like I can’t eat scallops, clams, mussles and oysters, but I can have octopus and squid) but depending on the severity of your reaction, you should be careful to make sure it is not the whole group. Shellfish is interesting in that 60 percent of people with a shellfish allergy do not discover it until adulthood (that’s me!!) Once you have it though, it is a lifelong allergy. Shellfish reactions are varied and range from anaphylaxis to severe reactions such as shortness of breath or a hoarse throat, repetitive coughing, trouble swallowing, face swelling, pale-blue coloring, and dizziness or confusion. Less severe reactions can include heartburn, vomiting, stomach cramps, bloating, and diarrhea. If you have family members with this allergy, then pay close attention to it. Both my father and grandmother have shellfish allergies, so I wasn’t shocked to realize that I had developed them.


Fish allergies tend to be lifelong, with 60 percent of sufferers discovering their allergies as children and 40 percent as adults, so many of you would already know if you had them. However, if you believe you may have a fish allergy, or have a close relative with a fish allergy, then you may not want to include fish and fish products in your diet. (It is important to note that there is NO relationship between allergies to shellfish and allergies to fish—you can be allergic to one or the other, or both.)

Cane Sugar

This may sound unusual, but it is more common than you might think. It is also personal for us, since it was the main culprit of Pia’s mysterious and chronic sinus infections. The most common symptoms of a cane sugar allergy or sensitivity are nasal and respiratory issues. The histamine reaction causes the sinus tissue to become inflamed and swollen, which then causes excessive mucus. The mucus can compound, causing sinus headaches, as well as stuffy and runny noses, postnasal drip, and puffy swollen eyes. The throat can also become inflamed causing a hoarse throat, chronic coughing, and even affecting breathing and causing asthmatic symptoms like wheezing. If the exposure is ongoing, the compounded mucus can eventually turn into an infection of the sinuses. Cane sugar reactions can also come in the form of skin reactions like hives and rashes.


This is one I did not figure out for a long time. Years after I started eating otherwise allergen free, did I finally weed out the cause of my last issues with my skin. And by issues, I mean acne. It was corn. Dairy also played a part, but Corn almost equally so. Corn is in everything by the way. The most common symptoms of corn are skin related as its consumption can cause hives, rashes and acne, which are all forms of inflammation. Digestive problems ranging from cramping and indigestion to diarrhea and vomiting can be reactions. Corn can also cause severe repertory reactions ranging from basic histamines (sneezing, stuffy and runny nose) to rare cases of Anaphylaxis. It is also an asthma reaction for some people.


I thought it worth sharing with you some foods and spices that, while less common allergens, are prevalent enough that they come up again and again in ELISA testing and may help find that needle in a haystack if you are struggling.

  • Vanilla bean, coffee beans (not caffeine), cacao beans (pure chocolate), honey
  • Sesame seeds, fruit seeds, chestnuts
  • Beef, lamb, poultry, pork
  • Baker’s yeast, brewer’s yeast, wine
  • Ancient grains like Kamut, millet, and quinoa
  • Kiwi, pineapple, bananas (It is worth noting that kiwi, pineapple, and bananas are a trifecta of allergies. Passion fruit is also related. If you find that two of them bother you, it is almost certain that the third will. And if you have all three, then you are almost surely sensitive or allergic to latex as well.)
  • Strawberries, citrus fruits, cranberries, avocados, apples (and even apple skins), melons, papaya
  • Celery, carrots, potatoes, yams, bell peppers, tomatoes
  • Beans, all types, from lima and broad beans to green beans.
  • Coriander, celery, caraway, fennel, nutmeg (which is a seed, not a nut), and mace (made from the outer layer of the nutmeg seed), cinnamon, saffron, mustard, paprika, red pepper, poppy seeds, black pepper, pink peppercorns (the latter is linked to people with cashew allergies)
  • Ginger, curry, onions, garlic
  • Psyllium, black or green tea, licorice, spirulina, ginseng
  • Pits and seeds of citrus fruits
  • Buckwheat (actually a grass, not a grain)