What is a food allergy?

Food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system wrongly identifies a food as a threat. When this happens, the body releases chemicals, such as histamine, in response. It is the release of these chemicals that causes the allergic symptoms.

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Symptoms of food allergy

The symptoms of a food allergy can come on rapidly. Symptoms can include:

 

  • rash (known as hives or urticaria)
  • swelling of the skin (known as angioedema) anywhere on the body (e.g. lips, face)
  • abdominal (stomach) pain, feeling sick and vomiting

 

The term for the more serious reaction is anaphylaxis. In extreme cases there could be a dramatic fall in blood pressure. The person may become weak and floppy and may have a sense of something terrible happening. This may lead to collapse, unconsciousness and – on rare occasions – death.

 

Most healthcare professionals consider an allergic reaction to be anaphylaxis when it involves difficulty in breathing or affects the heart rhythm or blood pressure.

More serious symptoms can include:
  • right_arrow_orange_icon swollen tongue, difficulty swallowing, persistent cough
  • right_arrow_orange_icon difficulty breathing, wheezing
  • right_arrow_orange_icon feeling faint, feeling dizzy, clammy skin

Diagnosis and treatment

If you suspect you have an allergy to any member of the legume family, it is important to see your GP. Your GP can refer you to an allergy clinic if needed. Your GP can locate an allergy clinic in your area by visiting the website of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology: https://www.bsaci.org/workforce/find-a-clinic/

 

At an allergy clinic, an allergy specialist will discuss your symptoms with you in detail. Skin prick tests and blood tests can help with the diagnosis. If your reactions are likely to be severe and you are at risk of anaphylaxis, you will be prescribed adrenaline auto-injectors (AAIs) for self-use in an emergency.

 

 

Will you be allergic to more than one legume?

If you react to one member of the legume family, it is possible you could react to another member of this group. This process is known as “cross-reactivity” – where the proteins in one food are similar to those in another food.

 

Some people with a legume allergy will only react to that one legume, whereas others may react to other legumes as well. If you regularly eat other legumes with no symptoms, there would be no reason to suspect you will become allergic to them, however, always follow the advice of your allergy specialist.

 

It is difficult to determine how many people are allergic to multiple legumes, as studies show varying results. One study found that 5 out of 100 people with an allergy to one legume will also have an allergy to another legume. Other studies have higher estimates; however, this is highly dependent on geographical region and the prevalence of these foods in the diet in different countries.

 

The key message is to discuss any concerns regarding legume cross-reactivity with your doctor or allergy specialist. They will be able to give you specific advice regarding this and which foods you should avoid.

Types of Legumes

Top 14 allergens

 

  • Peanut
  • Soya (which is derived from the soya bean)
  • Lupin

 

Peanuts, soya and lupin are included in the list of top 14 major food allergens in the UK. This means they must be highlighted on food ingredients labels, for example in bold. For further information about peanut, soya or lupin allergy, see the link at the end of this article to read our individual factsheets.

Others legumes including their dried seeds (pulses):

The following list includes some other legumes that may trigger allergic reactions for some people. These are not included in the list of top 14 food allergens, which means they will be listed as an ingredient on food labels, but they will not be highlighted.

 

  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Green peas
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Kidney beans
  • Haricot beans (navy beans)
  • Adzuki beans
  • Butter beans (lima beans)
  • Broad beans (fava beans)
  • Fenugreek
  • Cannellini beans
  • Flageolet beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Borlotti beans
  • Mange-tout
  • Tamarind

Avoiding legumes

Read ingredient lists carefully every time you shop. When buying catered food, such as that sold in restaurants and takeaways, it is important to question staff directly. Staff may not be aware that legumes can cause allergic reactions. Make sure you name the specific legume or pulse that causes the problem.

Foods to watch out for
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Dahl, or dal, in Asian cooking is made up of lentils, peas or other legumes
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Houmous, or hummus, is a thick paste made using chickpeas
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Most commercial canned baked beans are made from haricot beans
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Falafel is a deep-fried ball made from ground chickpeas, fava beans, or other legumes
  • right_arrow_orange_icon The seed of the fenugreek plant is used in Indian-style spiced foods such as curries
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Tamarind can be an ingredient of Worcestershire sauce and BBQ sauce
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Chilli con carne usually contains kidney beans
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Pea protein can be found in a variety of foods
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Vegetarian foods and meat substitutes often contain legumes
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Lupin flour can be used in pastries, pies, pancakes and in pasta

Links

More information can be found on our Factsheets webpage. If your legume allergy is diagnosed as potentially severe, you can read our factsheets on Anaphylaxis and Adrenaline in the General advice and information about anaphylaxis section.

See the factsheets on Soya, Lupin and Peanuts & Tree Nuts in the Food allergens factsheets section.

 

 

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