Recently the results of a 23-year study were released and showed that the number of African American children with food allergies had doubled. While the overall rate of food allergies has been rising, the increase is greatest in this group of children. Other studies have shown that African American children may be at a greater risk for developing food allergies, although it is unclear as to why this is. Researchers hope to be able to do more work that will flesh out this phenomenon and start answering some important questions about food allergies and race.
Food Allergies on the Rise for All Children
It is important to note that all children are vulnerable to the possibility of developing food allergies. These can be serious and life-threatening and are usually allergies to one or more of the top eight food allergens: milk, soy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and wheat. The 23-year survey, which included nearly 500,000 children, revealed that food allergies increased at a rate of 1 percent for Caucasian children, just over 1 percent for Hispanic children, and just over 2 percent for African American children. This amounts to a doubling in cases of food allergies for African American children.
African American Children More Likely to Have Food Allergies
In a study that aimed to find out how race and ancestry affects food allergies, researchers discovered that African American children are more than two times as likely as Caucasian children to have allergies or sensitivities to the top eight food allergens. They also found that African American children are particularly at risk for peanut allergies. The results parallel those of previous studies that found African American children more likely to have asthma.
In the study, the researchers looked at two indicators of race in the participants: self-reporting of race by the mothers and genetic markers for ancestry. Self-reporting is important but also flawed. Many children are of mixed race, which complicates that as a measurement. Genetic markers allowed the researchers to determine how much African ancestry each child had. The researchers measured the levels of antibodies to the eight food allergens in the children at ages 1, 2, 4 and 6.
The results from self-reporting of race showed that children reported as being African American were up to two and a half times as likely to have the antibodies for any of the eight allergens. Having the antibodies meant that a child was sensitive to a food but not necessarily allergic. Self-reported African American children were also more likely to have sensitivities to more of the eight allergens than Caucasian children.
When the researchers looked at genetic markers for ancestry, they found that for each 10 percent increase in markers for African ancestry, a child was 7 percent more likely to have antibodies present for one or more of the eight allergens. The increased risk was highest for peanut antibodies.
Why the Racial Discrepancy?
Unfortunately, the researchers found this important connection between race and antibodies, but they did not answer the question of why. Using genetic markers to identify ancestry in children and finding a link between these markers and food sensitivities suggests there is a genetic component. More research may be able to puzzle out how African genetic markers are connected to food antibodies. The researchers also suggest there could be environmental and cultural factors such as when babies are first introduced to milk or that African American infants tend to have less vitamin D, which has been connected to food allergies.
What Can Parents Do?
If you are the parent of a child with African ancestry, these results are probably troubling. The most recent study, while important and enlightening, has not resulted in any concrete suggestions for how parents can protect their children from the increased risk of food allergies. For mothers of any race or ancestry, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) recommends that infants be breast fed if possible. Breast milk is easier for babies to digest; it provides important immunity for the baby; and it may reduce the risk of some allergies, including milk allergies.
The AAAAI also recommends a slow and steady approach to introducing new foods to babies. They suggest adding new foods to a baby’s diet between the ages of 4 and 6 months, one at a time. This will allow you to determine if any one food causes an allergic reaction. They also recommend introducing the eight common allergens during this time period. Getting these foods in early may actually reduce your child’s risk of developing a food allergy.
It is important for parents of all children to be aware of the rising incidence of food allergies. Food allergies are not just inconvenient; they can be fatal. As a parent, you want to protect your child in any way possible. Educating yourself about food allergies is an important step, even if there is no definitive way to protect your child from the possibility of developing an allergy.