What the ?^@! happened?

When I was growing up there was this one boy in my class at school who got hives on his neck if he ate certain foods. We all felt bad for him because he couldn’t have chocolate. Now, entire school districts have banished peanuts and peanut products from school grounds. Some have barred fish sticks and tuna melts from the lunch menu. Today, it seems everyone knows someone with a food allergy- a serious, potentially life threatening food allergy.

What the ?^@! is that about? Why are food allergies suddenly such a huge problem these days? Unfortunately, nobody is quite sure. There are a few theories about why severe food allergies are on the rise.

Hygiene theory supposes that modern infection control practices may alter our over-all immune response. Serious food allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disorders have all increased in prevalence as the industrialized world has become cleaner. Some studies have even suggested that antibiotics can change the “friendly” bacteria in our digestive tracts and lead to more allergies and sensitivities. Here is a review of studies examining hygiene theory, originally published in Clinical Experiments in Immunology. It’s a little technical, but it does support the idea.

Some have blamed the increased number of vaccines that young children are given. Without chickenpox, rubella, and pertussis to fend off, they argue, any protein that enters the body might suddenly activate the immune system. On behalf of the National Institutes of Health, however, I will tell you that there is NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE THAT CHILDHOOD VACCINES WILL MAKE YOUR KIDS ALLERGIC TO THINGS. Vaccines are good; polio myelitis is bad.

There is also a theory related to GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) in the food supply. This post from the Institute for Responsible Technology outlines the theory.  The Genetic Literacy Project website countered this theory.  As with most GMO-related issues, there are few definitive answers and fewer truly unbiased opinions. Yes, GMOs have increased in the food supply coincidently with food allergies. No, not a single GMO crop has made it to market that carries transferred genes for a known allergen.

It has always been the case that allergies, from hay fever to anaphylaxis can develop at any time in a person’s life. When I was in my mid-twenties I developed a severe peanut allergy literally overnight. Why? It seems nobody knows, but I regularly search the literature to see what progress has been made on this topic. Until then you can learn more about food allergies from these web sites: