I often get asked why more people have food allergies today. Some people are concerned, others are skeptical. I hear the tone in the person’s voice — they are thinking that food allergies are somehow invented by parents. They might say something like “When I was a kid, there weren’t any food allergies around” as if to say that people in society today have become neurotic, blaming food allergies for everything.
The fact is that food allergies are real and are on the rise. That is why we are hearing so much about it now. More kids today have food allergies than when we were kids. According to one study, peanut allergy doubled among children between 1997 (1 in 250 children allergic to peanut) and 2002 (1 in 125 children allergic to peanut).
Why have food allergies become more prevalent? No one knows the answer, but here are a few theories, as explained in the Food Network special show Edible Enemies about food allergies (it will air again on October 19 at 10 AM):
1. Mothers are ingesting more allergenic foods like peanuts and breastfeeding their children and then causing an allergy. According to Dr. Scott Sicherer, researcher at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mt. Sinai, studies have shown that this doesn’t seem to be the case. [I have read other opinions, however, that say that this might be a cause because the food proteins pass through the breast milk, sensitizing the child.]
2. We are eating more peanuts. According to Dr. Sicherer, there isn’t really evidence of this.
3. The Hygiene Hypothesis or Cleanliness Hypothesis
“We’re living in such a clean lifestyle that our immune system becomes misdirected. It’s looking for something to do. [We] wash our hands all the time, we have vaccines that keep us from getting germs, if we get an infection we take antibiotics right away. And instead it ends up attacking things it doesn’t need to, and in this case, food proteins, causing food allergy.” – Dr. Scott Sicherer
4. Modern day food processing
“This may be one of the reasons why food allergies are on the increase, because we’re being exposed to these microscopic amounts, in very subtle ways, that may not produce a full-blown allergic reaction, but may continuously sensitize the body. Today’s kids are most at risk since their immature immune systems can’t cope with ever-earlier exposure to a large number of readily available processed foods.” – Dr. Richard Firshein
Examples: the addition of milk proteins (whey and casein), soy protein and wheat to foods that we are consuming — just check the labels of the foods at your house and you will find these ingredients in almost everything!
- “One explanation for this phenomenon as it relates to peanut allergies may be the way the nuts are prepared. Most peanuts in the U.S. are dry-roasted at high temperatures, and experts say the high temperatures may change the protein structure of the nuts, making them more allergenic. In China, on the other hand, most people eat boiled peanuts, and Asians have a much lower rate of peanut allergies.” (from Qualityhealth.com)
- The rise in food allergies may be caused by a lowered immune function due to increased antibiotic use, vaccinations, high processed food and pesticide use. (Food Allergy Initiative website)
Whatever the reason, this rise is alarming. Many parents with no serious food allergies are finding, sometimes by terrifying circumstances, that their children have them. I am hopeful that some sort of cure will be found in the near future.
You can learn more about food allergy from the doctors at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute:
- An interview with Dr. Scott Sicherer about peanut allergy (from 2003)
- An interview with Dr. Hugh Sampson about food allergies (from 2005)