Take a quick look down the aisle of any grocery store and you're sure to see gluten-free, dairy-free, peanut-free, and soy-free snacks from left to right. Open up a restaurant menu and many of the same allergy-free options are offered. Maybe you've even had a conversation with a neighbor who just adopted a gluten-free diet. With all of this increased allergy awareness, are we facing an allergy epidemic? Is the age of food allergies truly upon us?
The answer to both questions, in short, is "yes." There's no question that food allergies are on the rise - from 1997 to 2011, there was an increase of food allergies in children by nearly 50%. Currently, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), up to 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies. Before you grab a calculator (which I just did), that's about 4% of the population - which is a serious number. Add in the other 1% of the population with celiac disease, and now all the gluten-free pastas and egg-free cookies make more sense. Some skeptics say these numbers might be overestimated due to misdiagnosis, while others acknowledge food allergy prevalence usually decreases with age - regardless of these potentials for data variation, the uprising trend is still real.
It's important to note here that food allergies should only be diagnosed by an allergist. If they're left to self-diagnosis, it could lead to several issues, including improper nutrition. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) published guidelines for diagnosing and managing food allergies - it's a useful resource for patients and families. So, if you think you or someone else may have an allergy, get it checked out first before throwing those peanut butter cookies away.
Why are food allergies increasing?
That's the million dollar question even experts can't answer. Do a quick Google search and you'll find all sorts of theories on why food allergies are increasing, from scientific studies to pure speculation. One popular explanation, the "Hygeine Hypothesis," is based on comparative data between developed and developing countries. It suggests the sanitized environments many of us spend time in, might actually be doing more harm than good for our bodies. You can read the details here, but basically, the theory explains that the body's immune system is weakened due to a lack of exposure to germs. Time to throw away your Mr. Clean Magic Eraser? Not yet. Other theories suggest lack of exposure to certain foods (such as peanuts) at an early age may also be a reason for the prevalence of food allergies.
Eight foods account for 90% of all food allergy reactions. This is why finding mock "peanut butter" is much easier than finding mock "apples." (Yes, apple allergies are real!). These are the major eight culprits of food allergies:
- Tree nuts
How food allergies affect schools
Given the heightened prevalence of food allergies in children, schools that have students with food allergies are tasked with a big responsibility: keeping those students safe. But when exposure to a trace amount of peanut can trigger life-threatening anaphylaxis, allergy management techniques become more than precautionary - they're necessary.
In many instances, parents will be asked to bring store-bought items for classroom parties, or to refrain from packing the famous peanut butter & jelly sandwich for their own child's lunch. Unfortunately, not every parent agrees with these practices, but it's impossible to make everyone happy, right? For every voice against food allergy accommodation, there are several courageous students fighting for it.
The even better news is the nation-wide movement to make access to emergency epinephrine more easily available to schools. You can read about the Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act here, but the major takeaway is that it provides incentives for schools to stock the medicine. This means that even if a child has unknown food allergies, if they have an anaphylactic reaction at school, their life can be saved.
For more about how the rise in food allergies is affecting children and students, take a look at our free, comprehensive infographic.