More U.S. kids are asking, “Can I eat that?”

BlogAug 11 2015

As a child with a severe allergy to chickpeas, I was always curious about why some kids have food allergies and some don’t. Just when my parents figured out how to make Indian meals to accommodate my allergy, my younger brother entered the world, bringing with him 11 allergies, ranging from tree nuts to coconuts, and almost every lentil under the sun. Today, as an undergraduate biology student, I am still just as curious, but a bit closer to finding the answers to my questions.

It’s estimated that 8 percent of children in the U.S. have at least one food allergy, with 30.4 percent of these children having multiple food allergies.  Surprisingly, 90 percent of these food allergies are due to reactions from only eight foods: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, soy, eggs, wheat, shellfish, and fish. According to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control study, food allergies among American kids have increased 50 percent between 1997 and 2011! The same trend can be seen in developed countries across the globe. Not only are more children being diagnosed with food allergies, but according to the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the number of hospital admissions for severe reactions has increased seven-fold in the past ten years. These severe reactions, known as anaphylaxis, can be fatal, and include symptoms such as swelling of the throat, breathing complications, blood pressure drops, and hives. Given that about one in every thirteen children has a food allergy (roughly two kids per classroom), general public awareness of food allergies, symptoms, and response plans is becoming increasingly important in keeping this generation of kids safe. Apart from the health and safety issues surrounding severe reactions, poorly controlled food allergies can lead to considerable amounts of missed school time, in addition to a compromised quality of life.

Health inequalities – associated with both race and socio-economic status – have garnered increasing amounts of media coverage lately.  Inequalities are also prevalent when it comes to how food allergies affect different groups of kids. When compared to children of all other races and ethnicities, Hispanic kids have the lowest rates of food allergies, at 3.6 percent. On the other hand, studies have shown that black children have sensitivities to at least one food allergen at rates three times higher than white children. Sensitization to food allergens results in an inappropriate immune response, which, if not corrected by the body, may lead to a full-blown allergic reaction upon future contact with the allergen. The prevalence of food allergies has been found to increase with greater income levels, with the highest frequency found in children from U.S. households that make more than $150,000 annually.  The “hygiene hypothesis” speculates that perhaps children in developed nations are growing up in environments that are just too clean, preventing them from naturally building up immunities, leading to more immune disorders. Some medical professionals call for kids to be exposed to food like nuts and shellfish at earlier ages, while others recommend waiting longer before exposure to common allergens.

Clearly, debates in this field are ongoing and much more research is needed to better understand the nature of food allergies. Until then, my questions will continue to multiply: Why are reactions becoming more severe? Which children will outgrow their food allergies? Will there be a cure?

Kavya Bodapati, Summer Intern, Pre-med senior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in biology