At least twice a week I’m asked why so many kids are being diagnosed with food allergies these days. I’m quick to say that they are right, and it is occurrence that has climbed, not just diagnosis. Since 1997, peanut allergies are up 600% and overall food allergies are up 50%. Celiac Disease occurrence (not just diagnosis) is up 500% since 1950. And, there is a multiplier effect. Because food allergies can cause fatal reactions, many schools and other venues are banning peanuts and treats from their campuses. So even though only a few children may have allergies in the school, hundreds of families are changing their purchasing patterns to keep those allergic children safe. This is having a big impact on America, whether people and companies realize it or not. In order to know how to improve this situation, we all should be better informed on the likely contributors to the problem. There are a number of strong theories, some of which are backed by very promising preliminary research. Here is my summary.
Antibiotic Overuse: This is a fairly new area of exciting research and it folds into the microbe theory that I’ll explain next. The issue is that many children are exposed at a young age to repeated periods of antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics don’t just kill the bad bacteria, they also kill a lot of good bacteria. A 2014 study showed that mice with compromised gut bacteria exposed to peanuts developed an allergy to them. But when scientists reintroduced a mix of clostridia bacteria into their guts, the allergies went away (introduction of other bacteria did not yield the same result). We are now on the second and third generation of increasing antibiotic use. Since a baby’s gut bacteria at birth is a reflection of her mother’s, this bacterial imbalance, even in absence of antibiotic use later in the infant’s life, can be passed on at birth.
Reduced Exposure to Microbes: With our non-agrarian society and urban lifestyles, children are less exposed to the microbes in our soil. Our bodies need to be exposed to these microbes so that we can have a healthy balance of bacteria in our bodies. It’s like our body is having a conversation with nature to keep us in balance. Our gut bacteria help our bodies to interpret and digest food correctly. When that balance is off and a food like peanut is introduced into the system, the gut bacteria have difficulty figuring out if the food is healthy or dangerous. It’s like when your radio “scan” function is stuck between radio stations and can’t decide which one to land on. Sometimes the body makes the right decision and treats the peanut as food, sometimes it does not and the person develops an allergy.
GMO manipulation of proteins: Soy is the best example here. When soy was genetically modified, one of the proteins in it was increased many fold over the natural level that it normally occurs in soy. It turns out that particular protein is the one that is the most highly allergenic and the timing of the rise in food allergies aligns pretty well with the introduction of this new GMO soy. Soy is a legume, as is peanut, and people who are allergic to one legume are sometimes allergic to all legumes, this this soy issue could have influenced the rise in peanut allergies as well. (Note, wheat is not a GMO crop, see pesticide/fungicide issue below on wheat.) In addition, some GMO foods are causing allergies themselves. People who may not be allergic to two foods whose genes are combined may be allergic to the resulting new food.
Over Cleanliness: The idea here is that our use of antimicrobial soaps and cleaning fluids that kill bacteria reduce our exposure to bacteria. This reduces the strength of our immune systems because we are not having to work as hard to kill off bad bacteria. Our compromised immune systems are more susceptible to developing allergies to foods.
Pesticide/Fungicide Toxicity: There are two issues to talk about here. The first conversation is just starting in research but it shows promise. There was a recently documented allergy to a pesticide that originally appeared to be a food allergy. More research will surely come to see if this is the case for other children as well, that their allergies are to pesticides on the food as opposed to the food itself. There is also concern that our constant exposure to pesticides through food has compromised our immune systems and confused the ability of allergic individuals to properly interpret whether food is good or an invader. This dovetails with yet a third concern that crops like peanuts are grown near or in alternating years with tobacco. Chemicals used on a non-food crop like tobacco are not allowed on food crops because they are considered dangerous to eat. However, the chemicals from the tobacco crop leach into the peanut crop through the soil and air.
Further, many people who experience difficulty digesting wheat in the U.S. find that they have no problems digesting wheat in Europe. The theory being discussed here is that U.S. wheat is soaked in Roundup prior to harvest while wheat in Europe is not, and people are reacting to the Roundup, not the wheat itself.
Environmental Toxicity: Chemicals used in our furniture, airplanes, cars and cleaning agents as well as pesticides, prescription drugs and plasticizers are among the toxins often found in our bloodstreams and our babies. Chemicals banned as far back as the 1970s still show up in our system today. Breast milk has measurable amounts of jet fuel in it. These factors compromise our immune systems and many believe that children are born standing on the edge of a toxicity cliff. Small things that should not cause their systems to malfunction do so because their bodies are already dealing with so many internal toxins. There is evidence that fetuses are particularly vulnerable to neurotoxins during certain periods of development and scientists are exploring this as a potential cause of the increase in autism rates.
Delayed introduction of foods: Pediatricians now say that they are part of the problem. For over a decade, they have been recommending delaying adding foods that tend to cause allergic reactions until at least a year of age. They now know that delaying the introduction of these foods has actually increased the number of allergies to them, not decreased. There are promising trials going on right now where children are given measured and increasing doses of the allergen daily. This is working but the problem is that these children have to keep taking the exact right amount of the allergen every day, say a tablespoon of peanut butter, throughout their life. If they don’t they risk dire allergic reaction the next time they eat the food.
I’m sure there are a few more theories out there but one thing we know for sure, food allergies are on the rise and not just in kids. Anecdotally, I hear all the time from adults who have recently been diagnosed with food allergies too. It’s time we seriously look holistically at all these factors for the answer. We aren’t going to cure this by treating it as an individual problem. We are going to need to clean up our food system and dramatically decrease our use of antibiotics. And, that’s a lot harder than telling someone else to take a pill or eat a peanut every day.
Colleen Kavanagh is the CEO of ZEGO allergy friendly nutrition bars www.zegosnacks-staging.iuwvijf3-liquidwebsites.com and is the Executive Director of A Better Course, a nonprofit dedicated to improving nutrition for low-income children. www.abettercourse.org