Top 8 Food Allergens and Food Substitutions You Should Know

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Did you know that the top 8 food allergens make up 90% of all food allergies today (source)? Other food allergies include soy, sesame, and corn, but they are more uncommon (source).

top 8 food allergens blog graphic with peanuts, eggs, fish, and milk displayed
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Some people can eat food without any second thought. Others may not tolerate foods indulged by the majority. Maybe you or a family member have a food allergy and can relate. You aren’t alone. 

In the United States, 32 million adults and children are affected by food allergies (source). It is common for children to outgrow a food allergy (source). Whether you’ve had a food allergy since childhood or newly diagnosed as an adult, this article will give you an overview of what’s important to know.

boy holding a bowl of tree nuts with a caption, 32 million adults and children are affected by food allergies.
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Food allergies begin with the immune system making an antibody called immunoglobulin E(IgE) against the protein in a consumed food (source). If the food is eaten another time, IgE sets off an immune response, believing it is a threat (source).

The risk for food allergies increases if another allergic disease is present (source). If family members have food allergies or allergic conditions like eczema and asthma, the risk for food allergies also increases (source).

Research has proven its best to give infants potential allergen foods around six months of age to reduce an adult or child’s chances of living with food allergies

Food allergies need a lot of attention because they can be fatal. Food allergy symptoms can range from hives to deadly respiratory issues (source)

Top 8 Food Allergens

1. Milk Allergy

Dairy milk contains two types of proteins called casein and whey.  Someone with a milk allergy is allergic to these proteins.  It’s crucial to avoid packaged foods with milk or milk-containing products, though some people can still consume baked goods made with milk (source).

milk allergy, milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, and milk displayed on a wooden board, part of the top 8 food allergens

2. Egg Allergy

Egg whites and egg yolks contain protein, which is the food allergen. Egg allergy symptoms can be as mild as a rash to as deadly as anaphylaxis (source). Most children with an egg allergy grow out of it, making very few egg-allergic adults (source).

brown eggs lined up on a slate background with a cracked egg in a white bowl

3. Peanut Allergy

Peanuts are a type of legume like lentils and beans. Over the last century, schools have been increasingly vigilant about creating peanut allergy and allergy-friendly surroundings. Peanut allergies are the number one food allergen in children today (source).

Many food products are made with peanut butter or come into contact with peanuts during manufacturing. It is a non-stop job to ensure that foods are peanut-free.

peanut butter and peanuts displayed on a dark background, image for top 8 food allergens

4. Tree Nut Allergy

Peanut and tree nut allergies are less likely to disappear as children get older. A  tree nut allergy is most likely to be from pecans, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, and almonds (source).

If there is an allergy to one type of tree nut, the risk of being allergic to another is high (source).  This allergen can be tricky to avoid because it can show up in unexpected foods. Foods like frozen desserts, cereals, energy bars, and flavored coffees can contain tree nuts (source).

Tree nuts are sometimes associated with coconut allergies.

mixed tree nuts in a blue bowl on a white wood background

5. Fish Allergy

A fish allergy is the body’s immune response to a protein of a finned fish like tilapia or salmon. An allergy to one kind of fish does not mean an allergy to all types (source).

Fish allergies are unique because they can begin in adulthood (source). The most common fish allergy is the fish protein itself, but someone can also be allergic to fish skin and bones (source).

sliced fresh salmon on a wooden cutting board

6. Crustacean Shellfish Allergy

Shellfish includes shrimp, crab, and lobster. Allergies to shellfish can begin in adulthood (source).

Shellfish allergies have a long list of allergic reactions, including stomach cramps and weak pulse (source).  People with this food allergy are likely to tolerate scallops, oysters, mussels, and clams well (source).

fresh raw shrimp in a wooden bowl on a slate background with rosemary sprigs, fork and knife displayed

7. Wheat Allergy

Wheat is in a multitude of foods like cereal, pasta, crackers, and bread.  Cosmetics and play-doh are a few non-food items that contain wheat (source). A wheat allergy can be tricky to navigate because it is often hidden in foods.

Some salad dressings, soups, marinara, and ice creams contain wheat (source). Those who have Celiac disease cannot tolerate wheat because it contains gluten. Those with a wheat allergy may be able to eat other gluten-containing foods.

(If you avoid wheat or gluten, check out our post about Gluten Free Carbs.)

wheat bread, wheat displayed on a wooden board on a light background

8. Soy Allergy

Though soybeans are a type of legume like peanuts, a soy allergy doesn’t mean a peanut allergy as well (source). Soybeans and soy products like tofu, soy milk, and soy sauce are examples of some foods that must be avoided. 

soy allergy products displayed: tofu, soy beans, soy sauce, and soy milk on a green background

Reading Food Labels for Food Allergies

There is no cure for food allergies, leaving only one way of treatment–avoiding the allergen (source). The best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to read food labels. 

To make label reading easier, Congress passed a law called the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) (source). This Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  enforced law identified the top 8 food allergens and called for labeling food allergen sources on processed food packaging (source).

 If there is a food ingredient sourced from one of the top 8 food allergens, it must be labeled (source). For example, if there is wheat flour in the ingredient list, it must say wheat in parentheses next to it (source)

Food packaging can include statements like  “contains egg and milk” after the ingredients list (source). There are also warning messages on the packaging if the food may have come into contact with a common food allergen (source).  These messages may say things like  “may contain soy” or “produced in a facility that also uses peanuts” (source).

Keep in mind that other foods not regulated by the FDA may include one of the top 8  food allergens like eggs, meat, chicken, alcohol products, and non-food items (source).

Staying Healthy with Food Allergies

The number one priority for handling a food allergy is to avoid the food allergen at all costs. The next focus is to make sure you’re still eating healthy while avoiding your food allergens. 

In the last decade, food allergies have been on the rise. This has caused many food companies to create alternative and allergy-free food products that those with food allergies can purchase and safely eat. 

The secret to staying healthy with food allergies is to make sure you’re consuming a wide variety of nutritious foods, including substitutions for the allergens you avoid.

When choosing substitutes, be sure to consider all ingredients and all food allergies. For example, a person who is allergic to milk only may drink soy milk. But a person who is allergic to milk and soy could not choose soy milk as a milk-free alternative.

Food AllergenFood Allergen ExamplesSafe Substitutes
MilkMilk, Yogurt, Ice Cream, Cheese, Butter, Sour CreamAlmond Milk, Almond Milk Yogurt, Almond Milk Ice Cream,
Soy Milk, Soy Yogurt, Soy Cheese, Coconut Milk, Coconut Milk Yogurt, Coconut Milk Ice Cream, Rice Milk, Pea Protein Milk,
Oat Milk, Oat Milk Yogurt
EggsMayonnaise, Hollandaise, Tartar sauce, Baked goods, QuicheEgg-free Mayonnaise 

If cooking or baking with eggs, there are several substitutes for eggs, such as bananas, applesauce, tofu, and chia seeds.
PeanutsPeanuts, Peanut Butter, Chocolate, Baked Goods, Protein BarsTree Nuts, Seeds, Almond Butter, Cashew Butter, Sunflower Seed Butter
Tree NutsPecans, Pistachios, Walnuts, Hazelnuts, Almonds, CashewsSunflower Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, Hemp Seeds, Toasted Oats
FishAny finned fishChicken, Turkey, Beef, Pork, Tofu
Crustacean ShellfishShrimp, Crab, LobsterScallops, Clams, Oysters
WheatCereal, Baked Goods, Pasta, Crackers, TortillasCorn Tortillas, Rye Bread, Cauliflower Crackers, Rice Flour, Potato Flour, Quinoa, Brown Rice, Teff
SoyEdamame, Tofu, Tempeh, Soy Sauce, Teriyaki SauceChickpeas, Peas, Soy-free Sauce
top 8 food allergens infographic displaying milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy food allergies

Bottom Line

Living with a food allergy isn’t easy. Some food allergens are more challenging to avoid compared to others. Being a careful label reader is the best way to prevent an allergic reaction. Always look closely at labels for the allergen you’re avoiding.

Also, there are many other food allergies in addition to these most common allergies. In fact, some such as pectin allergy, are very difficult to identify.

If you are not sure, do your research and get in contact with the food manufacturer. Today’s grocery stores are well-equipped with substitutes to help maintain your health and well-being.

top 8 food allergens Pinterest graphic showing all food allergies


  • Dr. Lisa Hugh DHA MSHS RD LDN CLT

    Dr. Lisa Hugh is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Leap Therapist. She is a Doctor of Healthcare Administration and has a Master's of Science in Healthcare Administration. As a Food Sensitivity Expert, her passion is helping people with complex medical and nutrition needs find food and groceries that are safe and enjoyable. Lisa enjoys helping clients in her private practice.

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  • Gabrielle McPherson MS RDN LDN

    Gabrielle McPherson is a Registered Dietitian and Freelance Writer. Gabrielle has a masters degree in Clinical Nutrition and a bachelors degree in Dietetics. She has worked extensively with pediatrics and works as a freelance health and nutrition writer.

    View all posts

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