Over the past decade, I’ve heard more and more about food allergies. Ten years ago, claims of peanut allergies were on a dramatic rise, and schools began going peanut butter free. I remember kind of giving an eye roll about the whole thing, irritated that the sandwich that my child wanted to eat could not be packed in her lunch. I also thought (to myself of course)….”I bet if I brought a case of peanut butter to a village with starving kids, there wouldn’t be a single allergy among them!” I really did not understand the severity of a true food allergy.
Now, food allergies seem so common. In our extended family we have a general nut allergy and a strawberry allergy. Several years ago I felt like I was going to have a heart attack after eating a tuna steak…I don’t know with medical certainty that it was an allergic reaction, I just never ate it again.
So what are the causes of the rise in food allergies, and how many people really have them?
First, there is a difference between allergy and intolerance.
Intolerance happens when your body’s digestive does not produce enough enzymes or chemicals to absorb a certain type of food. It is unpleasant, but not dangerous if you eat an item that you do not tolerate well.
An allergy, however, can be life threatening. An allergic reaction is your body attacking what it mistakenly believes is a threat. Your body sends an army (Immunoglobulin E or IgE) out to fight the “invader”. Your army of IgE’s attach to your mast cells and they attack together. One of your mast cells jobs is to release histamines (think chemical warfare on invading cells). The result ends up harming you more than helping, and reactions can be as severe as anaphylactic shock which can cause death if not treated immediately. It is estimated that 150 people die of food allergy reactions each year in the US and 30,000 end up in the ER because of them.
So why does there appear to be more and more people with intolerance or allergies to food? The short answer is, no one knows for sure. These are a few of the main theories:
1) Environmental exposure to something that has altered our immune systems (no one really knows what)
2) Pediatric vaccines have made our immune systems over reactive
3) Genetically modified organisms in our food system
4) We are too clean and are not exposed to enough good germs
Finally, what foods most likely to cause an allergic reaction and how many really have food allergies? Here are the numbers:
Eggs: 1.2 million your children. Most outgrow by age 7
Fish: 6.5 million adults
Milk: 1.5 million adults – however 75% of the US population is lactose intolerant
Peanuts: 4 million adults
Tree Nuts: 1.8 million adults
Shellfish: 6.5 Million adults
Soy: 3 million adults
Wheat: 1 million adults. 46 million have a degree of intolerance
On a side note, I suspect a large part of the allergy issue also comes from eating way too much meat and dairy in our society. Our immune systems are in a heightened state all of the time in order to digest meat and dairy (see “The China Study” by T. Collin Cambell and Thomas M Cambell II for all the info you’d ever want on that topic). There are many testimonials of people who have given up meat and dairy and suddenly their wheat issue is minimized or gone.
If you'd like more information, this blog is based on an article in VegNews Feb 2011 Pgs 31-35