The Rise of Food Allergies
More and more American children are suffering from allergic reactions to the food they eat, and renewed attention to the issue is prompting changes from the FDA to the classroom.
More than 100 people die each year from food-related anaphylaxis, the most severe allergic reaction, according to a report in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. And according to Dr. Hugh Sampson, Professor of Immunology and Pediatrics at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, six percent of children have some sort of food intolerance, and as much as four percent of them are allergic. Almost 15 percent of the total population experience hives and throat swelling every year, and the number of children diagnosed with allergic skin symptoms has more than tripled in the last three decades.
Why the Increase?
Experts are largely mystified by the notable increase in food allergy cases, but point to several hypothetical causes. According to Scott Sicherer, Professor of Pediatrics at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, children are being exposed to new foods at younger ages, before their immune systems have a chance to develop and adapt to food varieties. The solution is maintaining a plain and consistent diet for as long as possible. The National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases recommends strict breast-feeding for children younger than six months, possibly until 12 months old.
A second contributing factor may be the increasingly clean society we live in. The immune system is finely balanced, Sicherer explains, and while one part fights bacterial infections the other occupies itself with parasitic infections and the production of allergic reactions. When the body is busy fighting bacteria it doesn't have time for allergies, but since our world is increasingly devoid of bacterial traces, the immune system will revert to the production of allergies rather than sit idle. "Allergy is an inherited disposition, so it runs in families as well," says Sicherer, explaining an additional factor and the tendency for food sensitivity to repeat itself through generations.
Fear of Food
Given the absence of any preventive treatment except for avoidance, it's easy to understand why many parents live in a constant state of fear over their children's exposure to allergy-inducing foods. The best references for identifying culprit ingredients in the food you eat are the labels. Although they can often be confusing, a better understanding will come through education, Sicherer says. It's imperative to speak regularly with a doctor and an allergy specialist to determine exactly which foods should be avoided, what type of food label items to look out for, and what that food item may be called on the labels. Unfortunately, vague food labeling and a failure to include some allergens on ingredient lists at all exacerbate the problem.
From casein to whey, "There are over 20 different words that a manufacturer might use to say that there are milk ingredients in a product," says Sicherer, explaining that the FDA doesn't require trace ingredients or flavorings to be listed. "We're trying to change the laws so that a company will be more specific in labeling, but for the time being that's what a family is faced with."
In fact this month the FDA declared a new initiative to inspect food plants across the country for stray ingredients not labeled. This was in response to a recent study that showed that as much as 25 percent of pastry products at two Midwest plants included allergens not listed on the label and more than 150 food products were recalled for stray ingredients last year. The FDA and many major food manufacturers have also announced a recent partnership with the Food Allergies Issues Alliance and agreed to adhere to specific guidelines for plant cleanliness and allergen separation. This includes the voluntary labeling of specific potential allergens, as well as those in flavorings. The new labeling is not required by FDA law, but should be a significant improvement to the current situation, proponents say.
An End to Sandwich Swapping
Schools are taking precautions too. Following recommendations made by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, which posts complete guidelines for safety on its website, school systems are changing their snack time practices, restricting student food exchanges, and generally becoming better prepared to understand and respond to an allergy-related crisis situation. The increased awareness of all parties involved is really the best way to approach food allergy issues, Sicherer says.
"The bottom line is that if you're well educated about the allergy, then you should be able to proceed with your normal daily activities within the context of understanding what you need to avoid," he adds, explaining that you can never be too careful. "If you were extremely diligent you might call every company for everything you've ever eaten and ask them what's inside."