Are food allergies really increasing over time? Is this true everywhere? And what are the problems it causes? Read on…..
A recent news story told of the sad death of a 13-year-old girl from peanut allergy. We’ve written before about what anaphylaxis is and about epi-pens, even about food cross-sensitivities. Yet even knowing what to do doesn’t always help. With a physician-dad (apparently*) on hand and 3 epi-pens available, still the girl died.
The end of this news story is that the parents have started a foundation to educate people about the topic of food allergies and to raise awareness. They want a new movement to understand, accept and change people’s behavior when it come to the growing diagnosis of food allergies. Which got me wondering if allergies are really on the rise, and why?
Anecdotally, as a pharmacist who worked in both the UK and now Canada, I can say that I don’t often recall asking about allergies back in the UK, nor were they very common. Here in Canada it seems to be about 1 in 5 of the patients I look after. Is the difference due to location or time (I worked in the UK 1999-2006, Canada 2006-present)?
Food Allergy Increase in North America
We can say for sure that allergies are on the rise in North America: a review article from the CDC is available for your bedtime reading, but it says
- In children, food allergies increased from 3.4% in 1997–1999 to 5.1% in 2009–2011
- Skin allergies increased from 7.4% in 1997–1999 to 12.5% in 2009–2011
- Respiratory allergies remained constant and commonest at 17% (Hay Fever, etc.)
- The prevalence of food and respiratory allergy, but not skin allergy, increased with higher income levels
So that about answers the question of time, allergies are on the rise as times goes by. Are they on the rise in the UK as well as North America?
Food Allergy Increase in the UK
Well, leave it to the BBC to report this one. In 1989 research estimated 1.1% of kids had peanut allergy, but 7 years later we’d already reached three times that number (3.3% of the kids tested).
Even though this is an old study, it’s pretty clear that food allergies (and specifically to peanuts) are on the rise wherever we happen to live. Next question would be why? There are many theories, so I’m going to stick to a couple from ‘authorities’ on the topic (people with more degrees than me).
Why the Food Allergy Increase?
Dr Wenk, prof of Immunology, believes the ‘balance of bugs’ theory. Essentially our human cells/bodies live in harmonious relationships with a large number of bacteria. “Interfering with the balance of bugs in our bodies makes it more likely that we develop childhood asthma and food allergies. As a society we bathe too often, we breast feed too seldom, we take too many antibiotics, families are smaller and cesarean sections are too frequent; all of these contribute to an imbalance in the mixture of bugs within ourselves and our children.”
Dr Roizen, Int. Med. makes several points:
- Roasting nuts makes allergic reaction more common
- Processed & GMO foods are irritating to children – making them susceptible to allergy
- Peanuts are hidden in many non-food items like (hand) creams
- Emulsifiers and other chemicals added to foods sensitize kids, so they are more likely to have an allergic reaction
Finally, peanuts are everywhere! In that same BBC article, the Food Standards Agency reported that over half (56%) of pre-packaged food products contain traces of peanut.
In the end this got me to wondering if we really should be changing people’s attitudes and behaviors regarding food allergies? Or should we be challenging the way foods are prepared and packaged, and the lifestyles we live?
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(*Either the journalism is bad, or the medical practice was – hard to tell. Hope it’s the journo!)