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Emerging Epidemic: Latest Research on Childhood Food Allergies Shows Troubling Trend

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We like to follow research in the food allergy world closely—after all, many of our team members are as personally vested as we are professionally in the advancement of food allergy research! Several of our senior team members either have food allergies or have children with food allergies. 

Last month at FABlogCon, we learned that Dr. Ruchi Gupta and her team at Northwestern University were soon releasing a new study in PediatricsThe Public Health Impact of Parent-Reported Childhood Food Allergies in the United States.

The study was published this month, and we wanted to share some key findings with you: 

  • Food allergies continue to affect a significant number of children in the United States—7.6 percent, or nearly 6 million kids, have a food allergy. Of those, 40 percent report having multiple food allergies.

  • Food allergies have a meaningful impact on families—42 percent reported a severe allergic reaction to their food allergen, and nearly 1 in 5 reported that their child had visited the emergency department for a food-allergic reaction in the past year!

  • Not everyone has emergency medicines at the ready—less than half of parents reported that their child has a current prescription for an epinephrine auto-injector, the only treatment for anaphylaxis. 

This study is a continuation of the work carried out by Dr. Gupta and her team in 2011. Their objective was to better assess the public health impact on childhood food allergies. They surveyed over 40,000 households using advanced statistical modeling to ensure they captured a representative sample of children in the United States. 

One noteworthy feature of this study was a “stringent symptom” methodology, which looked at the frequency, type, and severity of allergy symptoms as part of a diagnosis. This approach helped filter out those who did not likely have a food allergy, as several parents reported a food allergy when the symptoms were more characteristic of a food intolerance or oral allergy syndrome (OAS).

Even after applying the stricter criteria, food allergies are still a significant problem for American children. Today, 1 in 13 kids has a food allergy, which translates to 2 in every classroom. Peanut (2.2%) and milk (1.9%) are the most commonly reported food allergies, affecting 1.6 million and 1.4 million children, respectively. African American children are also more likely to have a food allergy than non-Hispanic white children and are more likely than other children to have multiple food allergies. 

Dr. Gupta (second from the left on the bottom row) and her SOAAR research team (Science and Outcomes of Allergy and Asthma Research) at Northwestern University.

Dr. Gupta (second from the left on the bottom row) and her SOAAR research team (Science and Outcomes of Allergy and Asthma Research) at Northwestern University.

We appreciate the work of Dr. Gupta and her team to increase awareness of the public health implications of food allergies. To quote from the study: “With the growing epidemic and life-threatening nature of food allergies, developing treatments and prevention strategies are critical.” 

We couldn’t agree more!

- Susannah & the Allergy Amulet Team 


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Food Allergy Numbers: Why the Mystery?

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As someone who has a personal and professional connection to food allergies, I probably talk about the subject more than most. During these conversations, I’m often asked questions about food allergy science, management, and awareness. As a result, I’ve grown pretty proficient at fielding most food allergy questions thrown my way (at least I’d like to think so ☺). However, there’s one question that I dread answering since my response will almost surely disappoint. Here it is: How many people have food allergies?

The answer? It’s complicated. Not what you were hoping to hear, right? Read on, I promise to share some great food for thought on why this question has no easy answer!

First, let’s review some commonly referenced food allergy statistics:

-       As many as 15 million Americans have food allergies

-       Approximately 9 million adults have food allergies

-       Approximately 5.9 million children have food allergies (1 in 13, or 2 in every classroom)

-       Between 1997-2011, food allergy prevalence among children increased by 50%

-       Food-allergic children are 2-4 times more likely to have related conditions such as asthma (4x), atopic dermatitis (2.4x), and respiratory allergies (3.6x)

Now let’s dig a little deeper. A 2011 study published in Pediatrics found that the prevalence of allergy among food-allergic children was highest for peanut (25.2%), followed by milk (21.1%), and shellfish (17.2%). The results of a recent national survey of 53,000 families showed that peanut allergies in children have increased 21% since 2010, and that 45% of adults develop at least one allergy after age 17—which is surprising, considering food allergies are commonly thought to present themselves in childhood.

These stats all sound pretty solid, no? Well, they're not exactly. Here’s why.  

Numerous variables come into play when discussing prevalence statistics for food allergies, making firm figures difficult to come by. To name a few:

-       Old data. A lot of the figures referenced above are 5-10 years old. This past week, the New York Times published an article citing a wheat allergy statistic that is nearly a decade old (and this appears to be the most current figure!).

-       Self-reported data. Most food allergy research is collected through self-reported diagnosis (individuals are polled and asked to identify their food allergies). Some have been diagnosed by allergists, but others may have had one reaction their whole life and attribute that reaction to a specific food that they’ve avoided since (as one example). Many folks also mistake a food allergy with an intolerance, which can further muddy the data.

-       False positives. The best diagnostic technologies out there aren’t always 100% accurate, as we discuss in two earlier posts: Food Allergies Today: An Expert Q&A and More Tools, More Problems? Food Allergies Since 1960. False positives are frequent and regularly occur during allergy testing. For example, my daughter consistently tests moderately allergic to almonds and sesame with the ImmunoCAP test (a test that measures the body’s level of allergen-specific IgE antibodies), but she frequently eats both foods with no symptoms.

In short, it’s hard to pin down just how many Americans (and individuals worldwide) have a food allergy, making this question an especially tough one to answer! As we advance our understanding of food allergies, one can only hope that this knowledge helps us to better diagnose, manage, treat, and prevent.

In the meantime, continued research, emerging therapies like OIT, and technology will lead the charge and give hope to this growing population.

-       Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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