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The rising rate of food allergies

The allergy-intolerance conflation

Many food allergies are actually food intolerances, Stadtmauer said. “People commonly think an adverse reaction to something is a food allergy. That’s a leap that they should probably not be making.”

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a food allergy occurs after proteins in the food enter the bloodstream and an allergic person’s immune system produces IgE, or immunoglobulin E, an antibody reacting to a certain food. The food-specific IgE then attaches itself to cells in the blood and body tissue, like the skin or nose, setting off allergic reactions such as eczema, coughing, hives or swelling in the mouth.

People with a family history of allergies, including asthma and hay fever, are more likely to have immune systems that form IgE against a food. A person with two allergy-prone parents is more likely to have food allergies than a person with only one. The Institute also states that children often outgrow their food allergies, but many adults have them for life. In what can only be perceived as a cruel irony, people are often allergic to the foods they eat most often.

“A lot of people have an unpleasant symptom that they associate with eating a food and they determine it’s a food allergy,” said Riedl. “There’s a lot of misinformation.”

Food intolerances are more common than food allergies, and are not caused by the immune system. But symptoms of intolerances, like abdominal cramps, may be similar to those of allergies, accounting for the conflation. Intolerances can be caused by factors such as food poisoning, additives like sulfites or MSG, and high histamine levels in some wines, fish and cheeses. In the case of lactose intolerance, an enzyme deficiency is the culprit for a difficulty in digesting lactose.

The distinction between food allergies and food intolerances is important, Riedl said. “The term ‘allergy’ is used colloquially as anything bad that happens when you eat a food. It’s a loose term that’s different from the true definition of an immune-mediated, serious, life-threatening allergy.”

Rising rates?

A recent survey published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology revealed that the rate of peanut allergies in children has tripled over the past decade. 2.1 percent of children were allergic to peanuts or tree nuts in 2008, compared to just 0.6 percent in 1997.

Is this increase due to misdiagnosis, as the new report claims, or other factors, like food production? Environmental changes like global warming have also been linked to increased rates in allergies like hay fever, according to a study presented in March at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

“Nobody knows why the true prevalence of food allergies, as well as hay fever, asthma, and mediation allergies is rising,” Riedl said. Leading theories for rising allergy rates include the “hygiene hypothesis,” first proposed two decades ago by British researcher David Strachan. The hypothesis suggests that a lack of exposure to germs and bacteria during the formative years have weakened contemporary immune systems, Riedl said, and could result in higher rates of food allergies.

Or perhaps the high prevalence is caused by increased awareness. As Stadtmauer said, “There’s a lot more attention being paid to food allergies, and that also accounts for it.”

Other possibilities include dietary changes, activity levels and even obesity, according to Riedl. “It’s probably related to environmental factors that have changed over the past 100 years,” he said. “But it’s complex. We don’t have a straightforward answer.”



  • Ellie P.R.

    A little bit of knowledge can be an irritating thing.
    Having a son with multiple food allergies seemed to make everybody I ran into an expert on allergies. Frankly, my son could have told anybody more about his allergies by the time he was 2 than any of the people who gave me advice at parties and in check out lines.
    At times I felt like printing up pamphlets: “Yes, we know for sure he has allergies. They are as plain as the hives that cover his face and have been covering his face since he was 4 months old. No, I am not going to try to give him just the yolk or just the egg white because our Allergist recommends complete avoidance. No, we are not going to give him a bit at a time because that is not what our Allergist recommends and because I hate playing ‘Will his airways close’ roulette with my small child. Yes, pancakes and cake and chocolates and most treats do have something he is allergic to and will likely result in a worse reaction because they have multiple allergens AND if you sit there telling me that it is cake not scrambled eggs and milk after I say no, I might hurt you.”
    By the way, after over 4 years of avoidance he outgrew all of his allergies and will be off to Kindy this fall without a worry.

  • CA

    Great article in general. My only specific complaint is that it seems to downplay the very real and life threatening food allergies that do exist. The possibility for sudden onset, severity and sensitivity related to these allergies is absolutely a matter of life or death and that should, under no circumstances, be forgotten.

  • HG

    There should be an article about the under-diagnosing of food allergies as well. I am severely allergic to mold (includes anything fermented i.e. wine, blue cheese, etc) It took several life threatening reactions to be properly diagnosed.

  • smilinggreenmom

    There is so much and so many people that do not fully understand the scope of this problem that is increasing at an alarming rate. Our son has dealt with his severe allergies, food intolerances and terrible eczema since he was an infant. We took him to many specialists, and not one of them had answers. In fact, the tests were very frustrating too because each one contradicted the last. We do know of severe food reactions that we keep him away from and as for the eczema and intolerances, his Belly Boost chewable probiotic has changed his life so much for the better. He can now eat so many foods that would once make his body flare and his skin is way better now too. I highly recommend!

  • jimmy capra

    A few comments:

    1) As anyone who has dealt with children with food allergies knows, it is abundantly clear that medical science has no idea what they are talking about when dealing with food allergies. The article above shows this, as the “experts” cited do not even know how to describe what an actual allergic reaction is.

    2) The food suppliers are mostly at fault for the large increase in allergic reactions to the wide variety of foods that people now suffer from. We have had great success in eliminating allergic reactions simply by avoiding any processed food that strips out the natural elements of the food “in the name of our ‘safety’ ” and replaces them with industrial waste products, aka. “fortification”.

    3) For those of you who do not know of NAET, it is an amazing treatment for allergies. It is completely dismissed by medical science for being ineffective. (I have to ask those medical professionals: so what do you do all day……other than treat people with ineffective allergy remedies???? ) For anyone looking for help, please look up NAET online and find a practitioner near you. It is amazing and actually deals with the source of the allergy, allowing one to eat the offending food without issue.

    4) Food allergies are real. The effect FAR more people than anyone even realizes. I see it EVERY day as I watch people eat. They have no idea that they are suffering from an allergy, but I can see their bodies react in all the classic ways that children react to allergens (red nose, red cheeks, hives, dark circles under the eyes, pallor, yellow color, etc….) No one seems to want to believe it ( I didn’t until I was forced to truly understand it) but it is rampant in our society. What should be reported is not the over-diagnosis of food allergies, but the VAST under-diagnosis. Also, what should be reported on is the total ineffectiveness of medical science to even understand allergies, let alone to effectively treat them.

    Words from a parent of 2 allergic children with now 5 years of intense learning, experimentation, and treatment under my belt.

  • mc

    It is not only the rising rate of food allergies but what we consume is also causing major problems. Overeating, for example, is a major concern in USA. Childhood obesity is the main reason for diabetes, heart problems, and other illnesses such as cancer.
    Recent Health News about onset of puberty among girls is really scary. Girls between the ages 7 and 8, reach puberty very soon. This will lead to serious health problems such as breast cancer, ovarian tumors, mental illnesses. etc..

    Many American parents are really worried that their daughters may not be mentally prepared to handle puberty at such an early age. Endocrinologists and Gynecologists mention that beef eating and consuming dairy products can also cause premature puberty and weight gain.

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  • Lisa Roy

    The percentage of food allergies is majorly increased people should take care of the things they eat and if they are suffering from any allergies they should visit the good physician but should not ignore it even small rashes can lead to death .

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  • Tfrazier6220

    Ohh, it’s over diagnosed? I should start to keep a food diary of all the times my son has come in contact with a peanut and needed epi and a rush to the E.R?
    Nobody reports they have a food allergy for fun, and I don’t think anybody just randomly chooses to get to an allergist and be tested.
    It’s articles like these that make it hard to make schools safer and raise awareness.
    Take little seven year old Ammaria who died in a Virginia public school last month. All the headlines say things like “Child dies from peanut allergy”, but if you read the news coverage her death was catogorized as death from cardiac arrest. Some researcher will come along and try to find data on how many deaths there are among children from food allergies and Ammaria will not even be included. Like so many others she’s even robbed of her voice to name her killer in death. Cardiac Arrest, Pulmonary arrest, choking, etc., all common misdiagnosis(s).

  • Colleen Phillips

    Overdiagnosed? My grandson is the first person in the entire histories of every side of our families to have a food allergy, and yes, it is a true allergy, as any exposure brings on severe hives and other life threatening reactions. During my entire childhood, and I lived in a dozen states and attended as many schools, peanut allergies were unheard of, and peanut butter was served freely and consumed enthusiastically in every school cafeteria I ever frequented, and there was no problem whatsoever. Instead of a cop out from the medical community, we desperately need research to determine the cause of the increase in, not only allergies, but leukemia, brain cancer, and autism in children. Oh forgot to mention, my granddaughter is the first person ever in the histories of our families to have autism. Something is going on, and it’s got to be environmental, because the rise has been so rapid.

  • Colleen Phillips

    I don’t think processed food is the problem, at least as far as the increase in allergies are concerned. Highly processed, nutritionally denuded, refined foods have been freely consumed by the majority of Americans for over 50 years. During the 50s and 60s, kids grew up on inferior baby formula rather than breast milk, sugar coated cereals, and white bread sandwiches made with mystery meat bologna and processed American cheese product. We snacked on Vienna Sausages and Spam and white flour Saltine Crackers. When we did eat fruits and vegetables, they were coated with DDT. There was always room for Jello! And peanut allergies were virtually unheard of. As I mentioned above, my grandson, born in 2009, is the first person ever in our families to have a food allergy. I think there is an environmental cause, but highly processed food predates the food allergy epidemic by too many years for that to be the main cause.