Why You Have Food Allergies and Your Grandparents Didn’t

It isn’t your imagination; the number of people with food allergies, especially children, is growing. An estimated 15 million Americans have diagnosed food allergies—a 50% increase between 1997 and 2017. One in 19 children has a food allergy—an average of two per classroom. The days of packing peanut butter sandwiches for lunch are gone, and many people are not happy about it. Some question if these allergies are legit, or simply the product of hypochondriac parents, and they resent having to change the way they feed their own children. After all, people have eaten been eating things like wheat and peanut butter for centuries, so how can so many suddenly claim these foods are dangerous?

A food allergy is an exaggerated immune response to what the body perceives as a dangerous foreign substance. Eggs, wheat, peanuts, milk, shellfish, fish, tree nuts, and soybeans are the top eight offenders and are responsible for 90% of allergic reactions. Allergies can develop at any age, and reactions can range from mild itching to life- threatening anaphylaxis. Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room in the United States, resulting in approximately 200 deaths each year. The existence and increase of serious food allergies is real, and at this time, experts can only hypothesize why this is the case.

The “hygiene hypothesis” suggests that allergies are the result of modern-day cleanliness. Experts theorize that a lack of exposure to microorganisms—infectious agents, bacteria, and parasites—during infancy increases susceptibility to allergens later in life by hindering the development of the immune system.

Others point a finger at antibiotics, which kill off the microbiome of bacteria that naturally flourish in the gut. In fact, researchers found a twofold increase in food allergies amongst children who were exposed to three or more courses of antibiotics during their first year of life. Gut bacteria play a protective role against food allergens. A recent study compared the reaction to peanut allergens in newborn mice raised in a sterile environment, with no gut bacteria, mice treated with antibiotics, and mice with healthy gut biomes. The first two groups produced significantly more antibodies against peanut allergens. Antibiotics in animal feed may pose a similar risk; trace amounts linger in meat and are suspected of being responsible for the development of 22% of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans.

Modern farming poses another risk to gut bacteria from the use of pesticides and herbicides. Dichlorophenols are also used to chlorinate water. Glyphosate, the chemical used in the popular herbicide Roundup, has recently come under fire as well, particularly in the development of celiac disease, an autoimmune condition which causes the immune system to target the intestinal lining when exposed to gluten. Scientists were shocked to discover that fish exposed to glyphosate developed the same intestinal characteristics seen in celiac disease—an immune reaction to gluten.

Notably, 1997 marked the first year of widespread implementation of Roundup Ready soybeans and cotton—a coincidence hard to ignore.

Diet also may be to blame. A study compared the population of gut bacteria in African children who ate a mostly vegetarian diet to that of European children whose diets were high in sugar, animal fat, and calorie-dense foods. The African children had much greater numbers and variety in gut bacteria. The study authors posit that the lack of diversity in bacteria is a result of nutrition, and is at least partially responsible for the significantly higher numbers of children with food allergies in Western populations. The timing of the introduction of allergenic foods into the diet of infants may also contribute to allergies.

All of these relatively recent trends likely factor into the widespread allergy phenomenon. Our lifestyles and environment have changed greatly since our grandparent’s time. While modern advances have certainly done much in the way of improving the standard of living, those same advances may be our undoing. At this time, there is no cure for food allergies, though promising research is being conducted. Recognizing food allergies early, and taking appropriate precautions, is the best protection.

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uditpatel • 2019 Sep 10

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