May 6, 2015
Severe Food Allergies Challenge Schools, Parents, Governments and the Food Industry
BY Mary Mahoney
The humble peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, once regarded as childhood lunch staple, today is banned by many schools because it could threaten the lives of children with peanut allergies. Peanuts are just one of many foods in a little-understood explosion in food allergies.
“There’s an estimated two children in every classroom with such severe peanut allergies that a few crumbs left behind by another kid could cause an anaphylactic response,” said University of Chicago food allergy professor Cathryn Nagler in a recent Time magazine article. “That’s a huge change in a generation.”
Schools, parents and the food industry are working to minimize the risks associated with food allergies. Allergens are marked on food packaging. Susceptible children eat at separate cafeteria tables. And most states have passed laws requiring schools to have epinephrine autoinjectors to treat any child who may suffer a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.
A 2007 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that “food allergy affects 5 percent of children under the age of 5 and 4 percent of children aged 5 to 17 years and adults in the United States.“ Food allergies in children surged 18 percent between 1997 and 2007, despite relatively little evidence of food allergies in previous generations. The good news is that while food allergies tend to start early, many children outgrow them by adulthood.
The medical community has no consensus as to a cause. We do know that our diet and environment have undergone major transformations in the last 100 years and that the human body may not be able to adapt to such changes quickly enough. Food found in almost everyone’s shopping cart – bread, cold cuts, cookies, frozen foods, kids’ snacks – often have dozens of “mystery” ingredients. Moreover, there is not much disclosure on how even the most basic ingredients are sourced and processed.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a list of over 3,000 ingredients in its database called “Everything Added to Food in the United States.” Science Daily recently published a large study showing that over half of what we buy is highly processed, with too much fat, salt and sugar, not to mention the other stuff on the label. While additives, pesticides and antibiotics in agriculture have made food more abundant, more varied, more accessible and more durable, our bodies may be rebelling.
Some researchers are focusing on mitigating allergic reactions by introducing certain foods in infancy. A peanut study published in The New England Journal of Medicine noted that “the prevalence of peanut allergy among children in Western countries has doubled in the past 10 years” but that “ among infants with high-risk atopic disease, sustained peanut consumption beginning in the first 11 months of life … resulted in a significantly smaller proportion of children with peanut allergy at the age of 60 months.”
Besides diet and environment, medicine has also undergone a sea change in the last 100 years. CDC data on pharmaceuticals states that almost 50 percent of people use one prescription drug, and about 20 percent use three or more prescription drugs. In addition, many people rely on over-the-counter medications.
The 20th century witnessed miracle drugs such as vaccines, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories that have increased life expectancy and quality of life in ways never seen before. But some researchers suspect a side effect of antibiotics that may be tied to food allergies. A 2014 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America focused on the use of antibiotics early in life. The fear is those antibiotics may eliminate “good” bacteria from our digestive tracts, such as the clostridia strain, thought to be linked to the immune system. In the study, allergen levels dropped significantly when mice were given clostridia, which suggests this “good” bacteria may protect at least mice from allergies.
As developing countries become more westernized, food allergies follow. A 2012 global survey by the World Allergy Organization noted that the “emerging economies of Russia, China, and India – countries comprising 40 percent of the global population – are in transition from traditional to modern lifestyles.” Preliminary data showed an increase in food allergies in these areas, the study said, concluding that “food allergy is a significant pediatric health issue that is likely to increase globally in the coming decade.”
One school of thought advocates going back – way back – in our dietary history, not just to the pre-antibiotic area, but to pre-history. The caveman or paleo diet, for instance, is a dietary plan based on foods similar to what might have been eaten during the Paleolithic era, which dates from approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago.
Paleo believers say humans should eat only those items that can be hunted and gathered – meats, fish, seeds and some greens – not farmed. For example, the paleo regimen recommends a breakfast of broiled salmon and cantaloupe. Sounds healthy enough; now just try to get the kids to eat it.