What’s Behind the Increase in Food Allergies?

By Kristen Chandler

I don’t remember knowing anyone who had food allergies when I was young. I’d heard of seasonal allergies; in fact, my family was affected by them. I also knew that people could be allergic to animals and insects. When I was in middle school, one of my classmates was a diabetic, and that was the closest I came to knowing anyone with dietary restrictions as a child.

As I got older, I slowly began to hear more and more about food allergies. Working with children at daycares and summer camps opened my eyes a little more. I still did not witness someone having a severe reaction to food until several years later, when I became a mom.

My first child was diagnosed with food allergies before he was 2. Prior to being diagnosed, he suffered from eczema and asthma. He also had several reactions to food, one of which was anaphylactic and sent us to the emergency room. My other two children also have food allergies, but theirs are much less severe. And while it still seems like I don’t personally know many people who have children with food allergies, it’s obvious that food allergies are on the rise.

Why Is There an Increase in Food Allergies?

As of latest research, 1 in 13 children in the United States suffers from food allergies. Classrooms have approximately 20-30 students in each class. That means that per class, 1-2 students probably have a food allergy of some kind.

Extent of Food Allergies in the U.S.

Food allergies have grown not only more common, but more severe as well. While past allergic reactions were milder, with hives being the most common side effect, allergic reactions are now more severe, most resulting in some sort of anaphylactic reaction or even death. Emergency room visits linked to allergic reactions have almost tripled within the past ten years. Also, whereas in the past food allergies were mainly a concern among white, middle class children, they are now affecting children of all races and socio-economic groups.

So why has the number of children with food allergies increased drastically over the years? Some people believe that it’s because within the past two decades, foreign proteins have been added to our foods.  Other studies have suggested that we as a society have become too clean. Kids aren’t exposed to enough bacteria to boost their immunity, leaving their immune systems weak and more susceptible to food allergies. Another suggestion is that while food allergies have increased, Vitamin-D deficiency in children has increased as well.

Decreased Exposure: A Popular Theory

Or perhaps it is actually a decrease in exposure to food allergens during infancy that leads to an increase in childhood food allergies. A clinical trial entitled Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP for short) showed that children who were at high risk of developing a food allergy exhibited an 81 percent decline of peanut allergies. The trial monitored over 600 infants, between the ages of 4 and 11 months, who had a high risk of developing an allergy to peanuts because they had pre-existing food allergies or eczema.

The infants were split into two groups. One group avoided peanuts completely, and the other group was given at least six grams of peanut protein weekly. These procedures continued until the children were 5 years old. They were then evaluated using an oral food challenge that was supervised. The group that avoided peanut showed no change, while the group that was given peanut protein showed that early introduction as an infant is indeed beneficial to high risk children.

U.S. Food Allergies Are Increasing

Still No Cure Despite Increase in Food Allergies

As you can see, there are several theories as to why there has been such an increase in food allergies, but there are no explanations or conclusive studies as of yet.

So what can we do to prevent our children from having food allergies? While it has been suggested that avoiding specific allergens while pregnant or breastfeeding could reduce the risk of food allergies, there is no evidence to show that this actually beneficial. If you have a child that hasn’t shown evidence of a peanut allergy, but is at high risk for it, you should consult your child’s physician or allergist before introducing peanut products into their diet. If your child has had an allergic reaction to peanuts, it is best to avoid them completely unless otherwise instructed by your child’s doctor.

What are your thoughts as to why there has been a significant increase in food allergies over the years? Has your child or someone you know participated in an oral food challenge and shown positive results? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.

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