Monday, August 6, 2007

One in Twenty Kids Have Food Allergies

By Kelley J. P. Lindberg

When I was in school (150 years ago), I didn’t know a single person who was allergic to food. Not one. Never even heard of it.

Now, organizations such as the National Institutes for Health and the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) estimate that as many as one out of every twenty kids in the United States has a severe food allergy. That rate is double what it was just five years ago.

Holy Peanut Butter, Batman!

How did this happen? No one really knows.

There are plenty of theories, naturally. One says maybe kids are exposed to more potential food allergens earlier and more often than they used to be. (Well, maybe, but every kid in my generation cut their first tooth on a peanut butter sandwich.)

On the other hand, another theory says maybe kids aren’t exposed to ENOUGH allergens and bacteria at an early age to build up immunity. Perhaps we’re too anti-bacterial for our own good.

Maybe in earlier days, babies and toddlers with severe food allergies died more often without anyone ever knowing why, so they simply didn’t live long enough to get to school, let alone to reproduce and pass on their food-allergy genes. And now that medical science has improved, so have these kids’ survival (and reproductive) rates.

Maybe peanut allergies are increasing because we dry-roast peanuts in the United States, unlike in Asia where they boil them and have a lower allergy rate.

Maybe the proliferation of petroleum-based and synthetic chemicals in and around our bodies has been messing with our immune systems for the last generation or two, confusing our bodies into mis-identifying what is and isn’t a hazard.

Or maybe doctors just recognize food allergies more often now, and it’s getting reported more consistently.

Or maybe it’s a combination of all of those “maybes.”

Or maybe it’s something entirely different.

We just don’t know. And not nearly enough funding money exists to do the type of long-range and in-depth studies that would be required to find out. So we speculate and shake our heads and pack Epi-pens everywhere we go.

It’s easy to think it doesn’t really matter why – we should focus on finding a cure. But that brings up the old adage about treating the symptom and not the cause. If we can find out why food allergy rates are doubling every five years now, maybe we can stop the causes and reverse the trend. If we find out, for example, that synthetic food additives we eat every day have caused our immune systems to whack out, then we could spend more energy talking food manufacturers into eliminating those types of additives instead of just printing better warning labels.

I don’t have a solution. And I don’t have a few million dollars lying around to fund my own study. (Wouldn’t THAT be lovely?) But I do have a voice, and I like to talk. (Heck, I’m female. That goes without saying!) And I would like to support those who ARE trying to work on understanding the causes.

So if you know of any on-going scientific studies into the root causes of the rise in food allergies, let us know. And if you’re involved in one, thank you!

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