By: Abigail Ryan
Food allergies are the worst. Itchy tongue. Closing throat. Hives. Stomach pain. Nasal congestion or running nose. Inflammation. Swelling. Sneezing. Redness of skin. Diarrhea. Difficulty breathing.
There is no cure.
They can be life-threatening.
And you can develop them at any time in your life for a multitude of different reasons that are both discoverable and mysterious.
Food Allergies: The Problem
It is important to note that food intolerance is different than food allergies. Food intolerance does not affect the body’s immune system, although some symptoms may be the same as in food allergy. The Mayo Clinic defines a food intolerance as:
“If you have a food intolerance, you may be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without trouble. You may also be able to prevent a reaction. For example, if you have lactose intolerance, you may be able to drink lactose-free milk or take lactase enzyme pills (Lactaid) to aid digestion.”
According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), an allergic reaction to food sends someone somewhere to the ER every three minutes. Symptoms typically appear within minutes of consumption, but some can take up to several hours, and it can affect “the skin, the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory tract and, in the most serious case, the cardiovascular system”.
Just among children and young adults under the age of 18, food allergies are currently causing a rising 300,000 ambulance-driven hospital visits per year, and it’s been shown that approximately nine out of every ten allergic reactions are in response to some kind of nut, fish or shellfish, milk, eggs, soy, or wheat. Since the reactions can range wildly from mild to severe (including some life-threatening conditions like anaphylaxis), food allergies are a substantial issue deserving consideration.
But are they becoming more common?
Let’s Take a Deeper Look
According to a new report from the National Academy of Science, it’s difficult to determine how many people in the United States have food allergies; consequently, tracking whether or not there is an increase in food allergies is a difficult task. Part of the difficulty here is that food allergies are so often self-diagnosed through misunderstood symptoms. Someone without the right education might misinterpret lactose intolerance, a gluten allergy, or some sort of illness as an allergy to the kinds of food they’re consuming. This not only distorts the statistics of the food allergies in America, but it makes it utterly untrustworthy.
So, what is an allergy anyway? According to Adam Collison, Elizabeth Percival, Joerg Mattes, and Rani Bhatia, all collaborating authors for the Huffington Post,
“Allergies are reactions caused by the immune system as it responds to environmental substances that are usually harmless to most people. They may occur in response to a range of different material (called allergens), such as food, pollen, dust mites, animals, insect stings, or medicines.”
According to these authors, allergies in general are becoming much more common, especially in the western world. They’ve determined that one in every twenty people in Australia will develop a food allergy and one out of every hundred will have the life-threatening reaction, anaphylaxis. They base these estimations off of hospital admissions, saying that the cases for anaphylaxis have doubled in the ten years from 1994 to 2004, “and were five times higher in children under five years old over the same period… The development of allergy in early life is increasing at a faster rate than in adults”.
CNBC published an article in 2016 about food allergies and the outrageous price of EpiPens in which they voiced the outcome of their own research. They used the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as one of their main sources, saying that food allergies in children specifically had increased by an entire 50% between 1997 and 2011, affecting a surprising one in thirteen children born in the United States. That’s at least one—usually two—children per school classroom!
The CDC comments on its website that “[f]ood allergies are a growing food safety and public health concern that affect an estimated 4%–6% of children in the United States.”
But Why the Increase?
It seems scientists are exploring two main reasons for these increases:
- The West’s obsession with germ-elimination.
The idea that excessive cleaning and cleanliness can trigger a wide variety of immune ailments is still under extensive study and debate. How can cleaning something make you more susceptible to sickness? Well, a large number of physicians and doctors are backing the theory and even the FDA is giving it some consideration. But why?
According to CNBC, “The so-called hygiene hypothesis posits that a lack of exposure to infectious agents early in childhood can create a scenario where the immune system mistakes a food protein as an invading germ.” And according to Dr. Leigh Vincocur of the American College of Emergency Physicians, “We’re being too clean. We’re essentially creating allergies for ourselves.” Vinocur claims that overuse of some medicines, antibiotics, and acid-reducing stomach medication cause a change in the gastrointestinal tract, making it much more susceptible to health problems. “We’ve gotten rid of so many basic microbes that we are exposed to, that our immune systems are sitting idle, waiting to rev up for an attack,” Vinocur claims.
Essentially, when you use medication and chemicals to fight germs and bacteria, you’re teaching your body that it doesn’t have to and so it stops trying, making you much more vulnerable to illness.
- Environmental Changes
This theory is fairly broad. As simply put as possible, some scientist argue that warmer climates worsen respiratory allergies since the growing seasons for plants is longer, thereby increasing pollen and allergen counts. Since 2000-2009 was the hottest decade on record, causing the United States’ temperature to rise 10 degrees in coming decades, some scientist argue that this is the reason for the increase in allergies today.
In the end, building up a strong immune system is valuable, so take your Vitamin C. Let your kids get dirty and be exposed to fresh air so they can begin growing a strong immune system early. And while you are at it, check back with us weekly for our What’s In Your Kitchen? articles putting you on notice as to recalls for undeclared allergens.