How America Got Allergic to Everything

How America Got Allergic to Everything
Food Allergies

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Food sensitivity, from mild intolerance to true food allergy, is on the rise, but why?

This is one in a series of articles. For more on this subject visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Is Our Food Killing Us? Diet, Nutrition, and Health in 21st Century America.

According to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control in 2013, food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Another study conducted by the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute (JFAI) at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City indicated that between 1997 and 2008, the rate of reported peanut allergy in children more than tripled, from one in 260 to one in 70 children. It’s not just the United States, either. According to the World Allergy Organization Journal, many countries including Australia, Japan, China, Korea, and Norway have reported a rise in food allergies in the last decade.

Food sensitivity, from mild intolerance to true food allergy, is on the rise, but why?

There are only eight foods considered to be true food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. According to the Food Allergy Research and Education Center, they account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions in the United States. In addition, there are several other common allergens contained in food — and FARE notes that “a person can be allergic to virtually any food." Some people are particularly sensitive to food additives, like the sulfites used to preserve dried fruit, which can trigger asthma attacks.

A true allergic reaction is an immune response, which can be life-threatening, that occurs when the immune system mistakenly targets a harmless food protein. Symptoms range from a mild rash to anaphylaxis, which has a rapid onset and is potentially fatal. The first effective response to a reaction is epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which halts the reaction.

Again, it’s not the food that’s hurting you. It’s your immune system playing “bad cop” to a protein that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Presumably, food allergies have always been with us. But why are they so much more prevalent today? Research is ongoing, but the so-called hygiene hypothesis provides some explanation. According to this theory, the likely culprit is our overly sanitary lifestyle, which has left our immune system less practiced in fighting common bacteria and viruses.

Without developing immune tolerances through early exposure, our bodies overreact to harmless substances like pollen, or the ingredients in various allergenic foods. Still, according to Dr. Scott Sicherer, professor of pediatrics, allergy, and immunology at the JFAI — while the hygiene hypothesis is perhaps the most popular theory — allergies, and certainly different levels of allergic reaction, develop out of “many factors that interplay with each other and the genetic background of individuals.”

"If the food is heated, it breaks down the proteins and there are usually no more symptoms. A raw apple might trigger symptoms but apple juice or apple sauce does not."There is no known way to prevent the development of food allergies, although a 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that eating nuts during pregnancy might reduce a child’s risk for nut allergies. 

According to Dr. Sicherer, some food allergies, like those to eggs, milk, wheat, and soy, can be outgrown, but allergies to peanuts, nuts, fish, and shellfish resolve less often.

Yet another form of food allergy, which Dr. Sicherer identified as one of the most common, is called pollen-related food allergy, or oral allergy syndrome, which sometimes affects those with allergies to pollens like birch or ragweed. Symptoms are generally limited to the mouth, lips, and throat, and are usually not severe.

“The reason this happens is that the proteins in the pollen look similar to certain proteins in fruits or vegetables,” said Dr. Sicherer. “For example, birch pollen-like proteins are in many pitted fruits, carrots, and strawberries. Ragweed-like proteins are in melons.  However, if the food is heated, it breaks down the proteins and there are usually no more symptoms. A raw apple might trigger symptoms but apple juice or apple sauce does not. This allergy, again, is not from pollen on the fruit but rather a similar protein found in the fruit.”

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