When many parents were growing up, food allergies were so rare that few of them remember childhood friends experiencing them.
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But today, parents don’t have to look far to find a child with at least one food allergy in their kids’ classrooms, circle of friends or even in their own families.
Food allergies affect more than six million children in America, or about eight percent of kids, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. That’s twice the number of cases recorded in 2007.
“There are so many theories out there about the rise in food allergies, and none of them are taking the lead in what we think,” says immunologist Sandra Hong, MD.
Research is underway to identify the cause of this sharp increase in food allergies, which Dr. Hong expects will result in new recommendations for parents and a treatment within five to 10 years.
Theories why food allergies have increased
- The “Hygiene Hypothesis.” This theory suggests that childhood exposure to germs and certain infections helps the immune system develop, providing protection against allergies and asthma. One recent study suggested that children whose parents lick their child’s pacifier to clean it have lower incidences of allergies.
- Earlier exposure to certain foods. The rise in food allergies has coincided with recommendations that young children avoid milk before 1 year of age, eggs before age 2 and peanuts before age 3. Studies are evaluating whether introducing these foods earlier might condition a child’s immune system toward tolerating such foods.
- Processing of foods. Countries that rely on the “Western diet” dominated by processed foods have higher incidences of food allergies. The way a food is processed can increase the allergenicity. For example, in China, peanuts are boiled while in the United States, we dry roast them. Studies have found that dry roasting peanuts causes them to be more likely to cause allergic reactions.
There’s been no change yet in recommendations for protecting young children from food allergies. But for those children who already have certain food allergies such as egg and milk, Dr. Hong is increasingly introducing small amounts of these foods in a baked form to develop tolerance.
“Eighty percent of children can tolerate these particular foods baked into products. Those are the kids who are more likely to grow out of their allergies and develop a tolerance,” she says.
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