Explaining the Rise in Food Allergies
Food allergies have been on the rise for the past few decades and have been the cause for increased hospitalisations and, in severe cases, death. Some people experience minor reactions, but for others, being allergic to a certain food group means constant vigilance, fear and anxiety.
More people are allergic to food now than ever before and a large majority of those affected are children and young adults. Research suggests that the rate of food allergies in the worldwide population has increased – from 3 percent in 1960 to 7 percent in 2018 – with the majority of people residing in the US, Europe and Australia. It’s not only the rate that’s increased, the range of food people are allergic to has risen as well. People are now experiencing allergies to foods that were never considered allergens some 50 years ago.
What Exactly is an Allergy?
Allergies are caused by your immune system responding to substances in your immediate environment that are seemingly harmless. These substances, known as ‘allergens’, trigger an abnormal immune response in some people, causing them to have an adverse reaction. Often these reactions are mild, like skin redness or light swelling, but they can also be very serious and lead to hospitalisation or death, most commonly by severe anaphylaxis. A study conducted in England revealed that between 2013 and 2019, there was a 72 percent rise in the number of child hospitalisations caused by anaphylaxis, suggesting that children’s reactions to specific allergens are worsening.
The most common allergies are shellfish, dairy, tree nuts and eggs, but in recent years, this list has expanded to certain types of vegetables, such as avocados and plants from the nightshade family (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, etc.). People are also more allergic to certain types of grains, wheat flours and, of course, gluten.
Possible Explanations for the Increase
There are no definitive or proven reasons for the increase in food allergies, worldwide, but there are many possible explanations – most of these point to environmental factors. The increase is most keenly seen in industrialised countries and urban, rather than rural areas. Factors leading to allergies are thought to be pollution, dietary change and less exposure to specific microbes, which affect how our immune systems respond. For example, research suggests that children who are more exposed to antibiotic treatments during their younger years are more likely to develop an allergy, as the antibiotic damages both the good and bad bacteria in your body.
Many young children grow out of their allergies, depending on their severity. The immune system will gradually become more exposed to the allergen and stabilise its response. However, allergies developed later in life are more tricky to grow out of. Gradual exposure to the allergen, also known as immunotherapy, is recommended to help the immune system stabilise its reaction to the allergen with the hope of eventually eradicating the allergic response entirely. One thing is clear, zero exposure to an allergen isn’t the best way to grow out of the allergy. If you are known to have serious adverse reactions, then consult your doctor on the best way forward and expose yourself in clinical environments, but no exposure means the immune system will continue to respond to the allergen as if it’s harmful to the body.
Gluten intolerant? Read up on Coeliac disease.
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