Why are food allergies on the rise?

Hosting a party or a special event where food will be served has become a bit more complicated over the last several years, as hosts must now contend with food allergies when planning party menus.

According to Food Allergy Research and Education, a group that works on behalf of the millions of people who have food allergies, a food allergy is a medical condition in which exposure to a food triggers a harmful immune system response.

Allergies can range from mild reactions to death. Life-threatening reactions can be initiated even by small traces of the trigger foods. In August 2018, a 6-year-old girl in western Australia died as a result of a dairy allergy. In 2016, Natasha Ednan-Laperouse collapsed on a flight from London to Nice after eating a baguette in which sesame seeds were not listed on the food label.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the prevalence of food allergies in children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, and it continues to rise. The CDC estimates that one in 13 children in the United States now has a food allergy. Food allergies also affect roughly 7 percent of children in the United Kingdom and 9 percent of children in Australia.

While no one can answer why food allergy rates are increasing, researchers have been working hard to figure that out.

A number of agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are looking into the “hygiene hypothesis.” This is a link to western society’s obsession with preventing and fighting germs.

Researchers surmise that a lack of exposure to infectious agents early in childhood could create a situation in which a child’s immune system mistakes a food protein as an invading germ, launching an attack. According to Dr. Leigh Vinocour of the American College of Emergency Physicians, being too clean may be leading to a rise in allergic reactions.

Another theory is that the overuse of antibiotics and acid-reducing medications could change the microbiome of the stomach and digestive system, potentially resulting in health-related problems like allergies.

Some other health experts say that failure to introduce common food allergens to children early in life could set them up for a lifetime of food allergies later. Dr. Adam Fox, a consultant pediatric allergist at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospitals in Great Britain, suggests that if parents introduce something into a young child’s diet, then the child is less likely to become allergic to it.

For example, Fox cites a 2008 study of the prevalence of peanut allergies in Jewish children in the UK, where the advice had been to avoid peanuts, was 10 times higher than that of children in Israel, where babies are often given peanut snacks and peanut allergy rates are low.

Many other doctors believe food allergies are still a mystery. Dr. R. Sharon Chinthrajah of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University believes the cause of allergies will ultimately come down to a combination of many factors. Environmental exposure and even what mothers ate during pregnancy could have implications. Until more is learned, people must remain careful of the foods they eat and serve.

Author: Rachel Howell

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