Long gone are the days when you could bake a pile of cookies for the office or send your kid to school with snacks to share without thinking about the ingredient list. We now have to be more careful than ever when providing food in public settings. If you are a parent, then you likely get requests not to bring snacks to school unless they are gluten-free, nut-free, and/or dairy-free. These dietary requirements aren’t personal requests: children around the world are now more likely than ever to have or develop food allergies. You may even find yourself limited at the workplace, in how allergens are controlled through policies and what a person can bring into the office kitchen because of the growing rate of allergies among adults.
The issue is global, but it’s most prominent in places like the United Kingdom and the United States. A study in London found that 2.5% of children in the UK now have a peanut allergy. Unfortunately, food allergies are far more serious than many give them credit for. In the U.S. alone, 300,000 ambulatory care visits each year are the product of an allergic reaction. Allergies are also expensive to live with: the market for diagnosing and treating allergies in the U.S. is worth $26 billion.
Food allergies are on the rise, but no one’s sure why, and what’s worse, few nations are doing much to protect the quality life of allergy sufferers. However, the European Union (EU) could be leading the way in allergy prevention and management, and it may have lessons to offer the world.
Why Are Food Allergies Spiking in Developed Nations?
Studies show that urban areas in developed nations are most likely to show the greatest increases in food allergies and intolerance. Beyond that, scientists aren’t fully sure why allergies (not only food but also seasonal allergies and asthma) and food intolerance are growing at such a rate.
It’s possible that the issue is related to the environment. For example, migrants tend to develop more allergies and higher rates of asthma in their adopted countries compared to their birthplaces, which suggests that something in the environment triggered a change that causes the immune system to react. Another example comes from children of Asian or African descent born in European nations: they have a higher risk of food allergies than their Caucasian peers.
Unfortunately, the body of evidence available to help understand food allergy prevalence isn’t complete. Researchers are continuing to look into the causes behind rising allergies. It could be related to the hyper-sanitized world children now inhabit: they catch fewer bugs, which impacts their immune systems and potentially makes them more susceptible to allergies. However, the true causes remains unknown for now.
Could Changes in Food Stuffs Be to Blame?
The vast majority (90%) of food allergies stem from eight foods (or food groups):
- Tree nuts
Given that allergies tend to concentrate in these eight groups, it’s worth considering whether changes in farming or production could be encouraging new allergy rates.
Wheat has long been a focal point of diets for both adults and children. However, a combination of the demonization of carbs (especially bread) and a fascination with gut health has led to greater scrutiny from those who are more ‘wellness’ focused. An auto-immune disease called celiac disease is also on the rise, particularly in the U.S., which now impacts 1 in 100 people. Celiac disease is not an allergy, but an immune response to gluten.
Books like Wheat Belly have contributed to a view that says changes in crop breeding are the reason behind such a huge jump in celiac cases over the past 50 years, particularly since changes are so localized to individual countries. Still, scientists say this isn’t necessarily true. Another suggestion is that a food additive called microbial transglutaminase, a bacterial enzyme popularly used in food processing, could be the cause. Additionally, people from the U.S. who either choose or are forced into wheat-free diets report that they have fewer if no problems eating wheat products in Europe, something they can’t do at home.
European products typically contain local wheat. Europeans grow 5 billion bushels of wheat each year (compared to the U.S.’s 2 billion), and their wheat is much lower in gluten compared to U.S. wheat. European farmers also don’t use glyphosate products, a type of pesticide used in wheat farming, on their crops prior to harvest, as American farmers do. What’s more, there are also far fewer ingredients and other additives in most European breads. Traditional bakeries using only flour, wheat, water, and yeast to make their breads are more prevalent in EU countries.
There are real differences in what Europeans consume compared to the standard American diet, but it’s not clear whether the issue causes greater allergies and intolerance.
Is the Trend Reversible?
Food allergies are on the rise. But without an understanding of why they’re increasing, it’s difficult to identify how to stop them. However, the EU may be on its way to ensuring that those who are born with or develop allergies do get to lead normal lives (or at least less stressful lives).
A study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that children with food allergies have a better quality of life in the European Union than they do in the United States. The findings also indicate that the burden increases as the child grows up. These differences may be the product of factors including clinical, societal, and socio-demographic factors. For example, Europeans have a different health service than Americans. All European countries offer universal healthcare that is either affordable or free at the point of access, particularly for children.
EU restaurants are also more likely to decline service to diners with severe allergies when they can’t guarantee the avoidance of cross-contamination. Europeans have a greater awareness of allergies, and the EU now requires preparers to list or label food products if they contain any of 14 specific allergens. While the FDA does require food manufacturers to label allergies on their packaging, there’s no such requirement in the U.S. for restaurants.
At the same time, managing allergies and asthma is also easier in most European countries. Buying prescriptions for asthma management, such as Breo, is often free and easily accessible for those with a diagnosis, in contrast to the U.S. The cost of eating healthy non-processed foods is also much higher in the U.S., which means it’s difficult to avoid products with hidden ingredients. CBD can be used for managing allergy symptoms and European markets are starting to make of the hemp product for treatments.
Food allergies are not going away anytime soon, but at the very least, more can be done to manage them. In this regard, countries struggling with the high cost of allergy management could learn from the EU’s approach and, ideally, help make living with an allergy more bearable and equitable.
By Frankie Wallace