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peanut allergy

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More Adults Have Food Allergies Than Previously Believed

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Last month, we shared the latest research on food allergy trends among children. The study found that approximately 7.6%—or 6 million—kids in the U.S. have a food allergy. Now we have more breaking food allergy news to share—this time concerning adults.

In early January, The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study on the prevalence of food allergies among U.S. adults. What did they discover? Approximately 1 in 10 American adults (~26 million) have a food allergy. 

This brings the total number of Americans with a food allergy to approximately 32 million, more than doubling the food allergy population! Previous estimates had the population at roughly 15 million Americans.

Below are a few more key findings:

  • Adult onset of food allergies is becoming more common; nearly half of food-allergic adults have at least one food allergy that began in adulthood.

  • The most common allergies among adults are shellfish (7.2 million), milk (4.7 million), peanuts (4.5 million), tree nuts (3 million), and fin fish (2.2 million).

  • Food allergies occur more often in non-white adults than in white adults.

  • Nearly 40% of adults with a food allergy reported at least one food allergy-related ER visit in their lifetime.

  • Adults ages 30-39 had higher rates of food allergy than younger adults. Adults over 60 had lower rates than other adult age groups.

Dr. Ruchi Gupta and her team at Northwestern University conducted both the adult and pediatric studies. Consistent with their research on children, Dr. Gupta’s team applied a stringent symptom methodology, which looked at the frequency, type, and severity of allergy symptoms as part of diagnosis to filter out those who more likely had a food intolerance. 

One thing is clear: food allergies are on the rise, and we need greater education, awareness, and research on this troubling health trend. 

A big thanks to Dr. Gupta and her team for their ongoing efforts to shine a light on the rising food allergy epidemic in our country.

- Susannah and the Allergy Amulet Team

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Managing Food Allergies at the Gym and Yoga Studio

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Food allergy management is not reserved for the kitchen, dining room, cafeteria, and restaurants. Food allergies follow you everywhere, from airplanes to offices, to places you would least expect—like yoga studios.

My favorite yoga teacher, who has a peanut-allergic son and maintains a peanut-free house, uses the yoga studio as her place to eat all the peanuts she can’t at home. I only learned about her son’s allergy because I spotted her spooning peanut butter right out of the jar and directly into her mouth before class one day. As a regular, there’s a good chance of her assisting me, and it is not unusual for her to lie right on top of students during a seated forward fold. 

Since we may be getting “intimate,” I knew I would have to tell her about my allergy. I explained that I was allergic to peanuts and would appreciate it if she either washed her hands or not assist me that day. Since she’s an allergy mom and understands the struggle, she was embarrassed that she had never thought of this as an issue when teaching. 

Yoga studios aren't the only place I’ve encountered my food allergies. They have shown up in locker rooms, the swimming pool, and on a marathon race course. I bet I’m not the only one who has spotted an allergen during a workout! 

As someone with many food allergies (peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, soy, and sunflower seeds, to name a few), I’ve gotten pretty good at managing them in public workout spaces. Below are my top tips! 

Your auto-injector is your number one workout buddy.

Having your epinephrine auto-injector with you at all times is a best practice no matter where you are or what you are doing. This is especially true for the gym. The last thing you want is someone scrambling to your locker—perhaps not knowing or forgetting the lock combo—and then rummaging through your things to find your auto-injector. Keeping it in a small bag with you is a convenient way to carry it from machine to machine. Activities in extreme temperatures, like hot yoga, may require an exception to this rule.

Have a water bottle that stands out.

Just like the yoga studio was my teacher’s go-to place for snacking on peanut butter, the swimming pool is where my husband eats peanut M&Ms. Besides not kissing, we do not share water bottles when he eats peanuts! 

While unlikely, you might share the same water bottle as someone else at the gym, and you don’t want to accidentally sip from the wrong spout! When it comes to your water bottle, make sure it stands out and that you always know where it is. If you bring along a bag for your epinephrine auto-injector, you can pop your water bottle in there! Or add stickers, a name label, or tie a ribbon around your bottle to ensure it’s unique. 

Clean what you can.

Wiping down surfaces at the gym is always a good practice—food allergies or not. 

Sometimes this isn’t always an option—take bouldering, for instance. I recall one time watching people shell pistachios and then going right back to the climbing wall. In these cases, you just have to use your best judgment.

Specialty equipment at a yoga or boxing studio can also have questionable cleanliness. In these cases, it is best to bring your own mat, props, and gloves. If you’re there for the first time, or can't bring your equipment, it’s a good idea to ask how they clean their equipment or request a newly-cleaned item. You may want to wipe it down yourself just in case 😁.

Let someone know about your allergy.

When working out alone, it helps if someone knows about your food allergies. Before any yoga class, I always say something to the instructor because I’ve experienced teachers lathering students with essential oils. 

Don't be embarrassed by saying something. I used to be, but really who is it harming? Nobody! 

Managing food allergies means you have to be a little more diligent when engaging in extracurricular activities, even ones that aren't food related. Taking simple precautions to mitigate risk is all part of life with food allergies and shouldn't stop you from hitting the gym!

What tricks do you use when navigating public workout spaces? I’d love to know! 

 

Kortney Kwong Hing is the allergy girl behind the blog Allergy Girl Eats. She has multiple food allergies (peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, soy, sunflower seeds and more), but does not let them stand in the way of enjoying food and exploring the globe. On the blog Kortney shares stories of life as an allergic adult, tips on managing everyday life with food allergies, and a few favorite allergy-friendly recipes. 

Kortney is also one of the co-founders of Allergy Travels, a website and online community that shares travel insights and inspiration for those managing allergies. 

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The Nutty Nature of Nuts

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For years, patients diagnosed with a tree nut or peanut allergy have been told to avoid all nuts. But what if I told you that being allergic to one nut doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allergic to another? What if I also told you that avoiding nuts altogether could result in a higher risk of BECOMING allergic to nuts?

Nuts, right?

To make things even more confusing, it’s possible to be allergic to some tree nuts and not others (e.g., a patient could be allergic to all tree nuts except hazelnut and almond). Walnuts and pecans are almost 100% cross-reactive, so if you’re allergic to one, you’re almost certainly allergic to the other. The same is true of cashews and pistachios. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. 

Often, if a patient has an allergic reaction to a peanut or a tree nut, their allergist will advise the patient to avoid all nuts. Why? The rationale is three-fold: 1) some tree nuts are cross-reactive with others; 2) nuts are often packaged and handled in a shared facility, making cross-contact more likely; and 3) it is often easier for a doctor to advise patients to avoid all nuts (including peanuts, which are technically a legume). 

Doctors have also generally recommended strict avoidance of all nuts after a peanut or tree nut allergy diagnosis because of the challenges in distinguishing between nuts. Otherwise, the patient would be expected to know the difference between all of the different types of nuts: almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts—both shelled and unshelled. Studies have also shown that allergy patients are only slightly worse at identifying tree nuts than their allergists. 

Patients would also have to trust that kitchen and waitstaff at restaurants could distinguish between the nuts (spoiler alert: many can’t). Additionally, it’s hard to find bags of tree nuts that don’t list warnings of possible cross-contact with other tree nuts or peanuts due to manufacturing practices. In order to determine which nuts a patient is allergic to and which ones are safe, one or more oral food challenges may be necessary. 

Because of this, recommending that a patient avoid all nuts has historically been deemed the more practical—and safer—approach to food allergy management. 

Then came the LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut) study.

The LEAP study suggested that kids who were at risk for developing a peanut allergy were significantly less likely to become allergic if they ate peanuts early and often. The study also showed that if a patient was unnecessarily avoiding peanuts they were more likely to become allergic to peanuts over time. This suggested that unnecessarily eliminating certain allergenic foods could increase a child’s risk of becoming allergic.

This study led to a seismic shift in the food allergy community’s understanding of food allergies and allergy management practices. Suddenly, blanket avoidance of all tree nuts and peanuts came with the potential risk of increasing an at-risk child’s chances of developing a food allergy. For this reason, it is important that allergists talk with their patients and/or the patient’s families after a peanut or tree nut diagnosis about the different approaches to managing food allergies and decide together what is in their best interest. 

The first option is the oldest approach: strict avoidance of all peanuts and tree nuts. Many patients and families feel safe with this approach. Total avoidance may lessen the fear of a reaction due to cross-contact. Accordingly, for many patients and/or families, avoidance is the right choice. Another option is to have the patient continue to avoid the foods they are allergic to (in this example certain tree nuts) and teach families how to safely eat the foods they are not allergic to. This process may involve a food challenge. Deciding to eat certain nuts when allergic to others does involve learning how to read labels to check for potential cross-contact, learning what the different nuts look like shelled and unshelled, and understanding that eating those nuts is something that should be done at home and not in restaurants. 

We still have a lot to learn about food allergies, but hopefully in time we’ll get better at managing, diagnosing, and treating them. In the meantime, for newly diagnosed food allergy patients, candid conversations are a good start. 

 

Brian Schroer, MD is on staff at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital where he sees patients of all ages with allergic and food-related diseases. 

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Spokin’s Susie Hultquist: A Fearless Food Allergy Mama!

Susie and her food-allergic daughter, Natalie.

Susie and her food-allergic daughter, Natalie.

If you’ve followed Allergy Amulet for a while, you know our team was founded by a female and that we love to support female entrepreneurs!

Unsurprisingly, we’re big fans of Susie Hultquist and the team she’s assembled at Spokin. This Chi-town team has built an app to help make managing food allergies easier! We recently sat down with Susie and asked her a few questions.

1. We understand you left your financial career on Wall Street to start Spokin. When did the “light bulb” moment happen?

It happened when my co-worker was selling girl scout cookies. I wanted to buy some, but in order to do that, I had to get ahold of a package to check the label and ensure they were safe for my family. I then went to their website to make sure the cookies were also available in our area. It took me 15 minutes to track down all the information I needed! That’s when I realized I was probably not the only person managing food allergies searching for this same information, and that there was a clear need to streamline and consolidate food safety information for the food allergy community.

At the time I was managing my company’s consumer internet portfolio and saw how different businesses were managing pain points. No one was solving this one, and I felt I was uniquely positioned to do so.

2. How long did it take to launch the app? 

It was two years in the making. I started by meeting with a lot of people who have food allergies. From there, we developed a content strategy and hired a graphic designer to work on app designs. We just celebrated the app’s first birthday!

3. What is your “why”?

My daughter Natalie. She’s allergic to peanuts and several tree nuts. I am determined to make her life easier and to help her live the fullest life possible. That’s what gets me up every day. 

A food allergy diagnosis often comes with a lot of no’s when it comes to food, and I want to be able to say yes as often as I can!

4. Spokin has a lot of new features and capabilities on the app. What are you most excited about?

Far and away is the map functionality! If you’re in the app and search within the “eateries” category you can choose any city in the US and see in seconds all the restaurants, bakeries, and ice cream shops others in the Spokin community have recommended. We now have 2.7 million reviews on the app and reviews span across 18 countries! 

To find in seconds all these yes’s after so many no’s is amazing. And it’s built by the food allergy community! This community is so generous. 

5. What does Spokin mean?

It’s a play on the word spoken. I had so many amazing interactions with people in the food allergy community that gave me advice verbally (where to eat in London, what chocolate chips to bake with, what to take with us on an airplane, etc.) but once spoken, that advice then vanished into thin air. All of this knowledge needed to be captured and shared with everyone. The idea was that if we built this platform, we could harness and share all of this great food wisdom with the food allergy community at large. 

6. When do you plan to release the Android version of the app?

We have started an Android waiting list and it’s on our product roadmap. We’re currently assessing demand, so please add your email to the Android list on our website, if interested! 

7. When you’re not focused on helping the food allergy community, what do you enjoy doing?

Spending time with my girls and my husband! We love to cook together, run together, and travel when we can. My girls all have very different interests so it’s fun to watch them pursue their passions. 

8. Since Spokin is based in Chicago, we have to know: do you cheer for the White Sox or the Cubs?

I love the Cubs, but I applaud the White Sox for offering peanut-free ballgames!

9. What’s your long-term vision for Spokin?

If everyone in the US with food allergies shared five recommendations we could build a database of 75 million data points that everyone can access! We’ve estimated that if it takes you 15 minutes a day to manage food allergies, then you can save a year of your life by having all of this information accessible to you. 

If you haven’t downloaded the Spokin app we recommend you check it out ASAP! Both Susie (Susie in the Spokin app) and Allergy Amulet’s founder, Abi Barnes, (allergy_amulet_abi in the Spokin app) have provided lots of recommendations!

-      Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team

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FOMO: Fear of Missing Out… On Nutrients

Part II: Wheat, Soy, Peanuts, and Tree Nuts

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Welcome to Part II of our FOMO series! Here we’re discussing how to replace nutrients lost from eliminating wheat, soy, peanuts, or tree nuts from your diet. You can find Part I here covering dairy, eggs, fish, and shellfish.

If you’re used to eating toast, cereal, pancakes, or other baked goods for breakfast, avoiding foods that contain wheat will likely be a hard adjustment. Or maybe you fed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to your first child with no issue and your second child cannot eat peanut butter. It is an adjustment, to say the least! 

As a pediatric nutritionist, my work focuses on making sure kids with special dietary needs are getting the nutrients their growing bodies need. As you can imagine, many of my patients have multiple food allergies and have a fairly limited diet. The silver lining for these patients is that these children tend to have healthier diets because they’re avoiding lots of processed foods! 

I like to start by looking at each food that’s avoided and its corresponding nutrients side by side. As we discussed in Part I, this approach can make it less intimidating to identify other food sources for those lost nutrients.  

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Let’s take a closer look at a few of the nutrients needed when avoiding wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts.

Wheat products in America are fortified with B vitamins, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. 

Thiamin is important for maintaining a healthy metabolism and key function of cells. The major thiamin food sources are whole grains, meat, and fish. In the US, breads, cereals, and infant formulas are enriched with thiamin as well as other B vitamins. If you’re avoiding wheat and most breads and cereals, you may want to ensure your wheat-free products are enriched with these key nutrients as well!

Niacin is another B vitamin—B3 to be specific. Niacin helps our bodies use fat, protein, and carbohydrates to create energy. This vitamin is also enriched in processed wheat products and can be found naturally in most meats as well as mushrooms, avocados, and sunflower seeds, to name a few. 

If you’re a meat eater and wheat-avoider, I’m not typically concerned that you’re missing out on B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin) or iron. However, you may want to think about how much fiber is in your diet. Many people substitute rice, potatoes, and corn-based products for wheat. However, these are mostly low in fiber.

Fiber is a carbohydrate that your body does not digest. There are two types of fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and helps to regulate blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and works to move food through the digestive tract. Many people experience symptoms like constipation after making a change in their diet. In these cases, I tell my patients to increase their fiber intake and add fruits, vegetables, legumes, brown rice, and other whole grains like oatmeal and quinoa. 

If you are not a meat eater, and you’ve eliminated wheat or soy, this next one is for you.

Iron is found in red meat, fish, and poultry, but there are many plant-based sources of iron outside of wheat and soy, including spinach, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds (e.g., pumpkin, chia, sunflower, and hemp), dried fruits, quinoa, and some fortified breakfast cereals. Iron is better absorbed with vitamin C, so I recommend adding an orange alongside your trail mix for your next snack. Calcium inhibits iron absorption, so whether you get your calcium from dairy or a dairy substitute, try to avoid eating them together. 

Avoiding soy is not easy because it is in so many foods. Both peanuts and soy belong to the legume family and contain many of the same nutrients such as B vitamins, protein, magnesium, and phosphorus. 

Magnesium helps normalize blood pressure and keeps our bones strong. Phosphorus also helps to keep our bones strong and helps our bodies make energy and move our muscles. Both of these minerals are found in abundance in beans, seeds, and tree nuts. Phosphorus is also found in dairy, eggs, in meat products, whole grains, potatoes, and dried fruit.

The goal for everyone should be to expand their diet and add more variety! A more diverse diet will lead to greater nutrient intake, and hopefully more delicious meals. If you feel like you’re in a food rut, take a chance and add something new to your routine. Your body (and likely your taste buds) will thank you!   

 

Tara McCarthy is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who has a passion for pediatrics. She has worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for over 15 years as well as a private practice and specializes in nutrition for children with special dietary needs such as food allergies, celiac disease, FPIES, EoE, allergic colitis, and sucrose isomaltose deficiency. 

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Everything’s Coming Up… Rotten

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Something in our world is changing. Our bodies are rejecting the food we eat. Even the experts don’t really know why.

In January, Netflix debuted an original six-part documentary series titled Rotten. The series travels deep into the heart of the food supply chain to reveal more than a few unsavory truths about what we eat. Of particular interest to the Allergy Amulet team was the second part of the series: The Peanut Problem.

This episode surveys experts across different fields to understand why the US has witnessed a surge in food allergies in recent decades—more specifically, to peanuts.

According to Dr. Ruchi Gupta of Lurie Children’s Hospital, one in four kids with a food allergy is allergic to peanuts, and more than half of those kids have experienced a life-threatening allergic reaction. 

The problem has become so widespread, in fact, that the peanut industry is beginning to take action. Peanut farmers have started pouring millions of dollars into food allergy research to help address the problem. To date, the National Peanut Board has donated approximately $22M to food allergy research. One company is even developing an allergy-free peanut, which could be on the market as early as next year. 

Peanuts are in trouble. In only a few years they have seen their reputation transform.

The Rotten series artfully underscores the risks that dining out presents. Responsible for nearly half of food allergy fatalities, restaurants have emerged as battlegrounds for those managing food allergies. Chefs must routinely navigate these food allergy minefields—and most kitchens are ill-equipped for the job.

We bend over backwards to make sure our food is safe. Bend over backwards because it’s life and death. – Ming Tsai, Head Chef, Blue Dragon

Surprisingly, no one really knows what’s going on. Doctors are still struggling with what seems to be a simple question: why the increase in food allergies? And why now?

According to Dr. Gupta, it’s likely a combination of genetics and our environment, with environmental factors triggering changes to the composition of our microbiome.

Getting your immune system to know this is ok, that in and of itself would be incredible. – Dr. Ruchi Gupta, Lurie Children’s Hospital

Some of the leading theories discussed in this segment, which we also discuss in an earlier post, include:

-       Microbiome changes: how antibiotic usage in infants and other environmental factors have affected our gut bacteria.

-       Clean state: the idea that the modern world is too clean and the lack of early exposure to dirt, bacteria, and animals weakens the immune system.

-       Early avoidance: for the past decade allergists have advised parents to avoid introducing allergenic foods early in life—it turns out early introduction may prevent the onset of food allergies.  

Much remains uncertain as to the reason for the rise in food allergies, and there is not yet a cure on the horizon. In the interim, management tools, standard precautionary measures (always carry epinephrine!), and treatment options like OIT can make living with food allergies a little easier.

We highly recommend carving out some time to watch this series—you won’t be disappointed.  Whether you have a food allergy, care for someone that does, or simply care about the food you eat—this series has something for everyone.

-       Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team

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Understanding More, Fearing Less

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“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”    – Marie Curie

Who better to listen to on the topic of fear than the first female scientist to win a Nobel Prize (twice!)? Curie had to overcome quite a few fears in the male-dominated science profession before winning those awards. She was also the daughter of a proud papa named Wladyslaw, a math and physics teacher (her mother died when she was ten), which is a nice segue to another proud papa: me. My name is David. I’m a 43-year-old corporate attorney, private equity and venture capital investor, and the father of three wonderful daughters. My daughter Caroline is not a scientist (yet), but like Curie, she confronts fear and hostile environments every day. She is severely allergic to peanuts and most tree nuts.  

As any parent of a child with a food allergy will attest, food outings are an exercise in fear. Even though my wife and I have no allergies, we experience this fear vicariously through Caroline daily. I can see the fear in Caroline’s eyes nearly every time we dine out. For a ten-year-old girl, this fear can be debilitating, frustrating, confusing, and embarrassing all at once. Caroline counts on us to always protect her, making us promise that she won’t get “hurt” when she eats out with our family. Caroline is good at math. Even at ten, she knows that getting it wrong even 0.1% of the time can be deadly. It is our very own David and Goliath story: my fragile young daughter against the fear of uncertainty. 

On a recent trip to our local ice cream parlor, we loudly (in keeping with custom) informed the teenage server of Caroline's peanut and tree nut allergies as we placed the orders for our three young daughters. The staff proceeded to assure us every precaution and make her ice cream cone in a separate, allergy-free area. These precautions always make me feel better, but the fear is constant, like white noise in the background.

First to receive her double-scoop cone was our eldest daughter, Ashley. Within seconds of handing her the cone I was startled to attention, "Dad, this tastes like peanut butter!" We didn't order a peanut butter cone for Ashley. Ashley has no food allergies, however, we never allow our other children to eat peanuts or tree nuts around Caroline. Family rule! I took a bite and sure enough, a strong flavor of peanut butter filled my mouth. Disappointed, we immediately informed one of the servers, who shrugged it off as if we had just informed her that she had forgotten to add green and red gummy bears to the cone. "Whoops, I guess we put the wrong thing in the order, sorry." I was stunned, but frankly, over the years I’ve grown accustomed to non-allergic parents, teachers, and servers acting like food allergies just aren’t a big deal. What if that server had accidentally given Caroline that cone? I clutched my daughter’s EpiPen case and shuddered to think what would have happened if she had been the one on the receiving end of that double-scoop chocolate cone. Uncertainty and fear gripped my insides. 

What’s a father to do? 

First, I make a point of frequenting stores and brands that promise nut-free facilities. The only “nut-free” bakery around is the next town over, but I think it’s worth the trip. I also support nut-free brands to ensure they stick around.

Second, I have spent the last five years of Caroline’s life trying to teach her to look out for herself. It’s a lesson I hope she will take with her when she is a teenager dining out with friends, and ultimately when she leaves our house and has to fend for herself. For my wife (Julie) and me, questions and doubts continually spin through our minds: Will she remember to carry her EpiPen at college? Will she know to diligently check food labels when we’re not around? Will she ever be too embarrassed to speak up about her food allergies when out with friends? To combat these concerns, we always try to make sure we’re helping her build the skills she needs to manage her food allergies solo.

One recent evening, while dining out at a local farm-to-table restaurant, I discovered half of a walnut in my nut-free pasta. While once again surprised and scared, it was a stark reminder of how easily cross-contact occurs. Enter Allergy Amulet, an early-stage technology company trying to create greater food transparency and help individuals with food allergies feel safer about the foods they eat. I believe that technology holds the key to helping her defeat her Goliath. That’s why Julie and I are proud investors in the company. 

Perhaps one day in the near future, my little wonder woman will not be brandishing a primitive sling-shot to slay the giant, but rather, an Amulet. Perhaps science will help her overcome her fears, and help her understand more, and fear less.

David would like to thank his wife Julie for her careful edits and contributions to this piece.  

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More Tools, More Problems? Food Allergies Since 1960

This guest post was written by Theresa MacPhail—assistant professor in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Stevens Institute of Technology. 

Last December, I wrote a blog post about the early history of food allergies from the 1800s through the 1960-70s. In this installment, we’ll examine more recent food allergy chronicles, current treatments, and diagnosis debates. Despite advances in our understanding of the immune system, and promising developments in allergy-related technologies (like the Allergy Amulet), the lack of a cure or effective treatments for food allergies persists.

The Discovery of IgE

Immunotherapy treatments were first tested in animals, and then cautiously applied in clinical settings to treat both respiratory allergies and food allergies beginning in 1911. The risk of an accidental anaphylactic response was, and is, ever present. Much of the early allergy testing and treatment remained unchanged until the mid-1960s, when two separate research teams discovered immunoglobulin E, or IgE—a molecule that naturally forms in human blood.

IgE’s discovery led to a greater understanding of the inflammatory response that follows allergen exposure, sparking more research around the cause of allergic reactions. By 1975, the first commercially available and reliable blood test for IgE became available for clinical use. IgE testing quickly became a significant aid in allergy diagnosis, since an elevated presence of IgE levels in the blood often indicates a food allergy.

IgE has played an enormous role in subsequent allergy research, diagnosis, and treatment. However, while IgE tests provide information as to the likelihood of having a food allergy, 50-60% of IgE blood tests yield a “false positive” result, creating a great deal of uncertainty in diagnosis. IgE as an allergy biomarker is accordingly far from perfect.

Food Allergies - A Rising Prevalence?

If you follow the news or social media, or have a young child in the school system, it certainly seems that food allergies are on the rise. Although food allergy awareness has increased over the last decade and has become a more popular topic of conversation, the food allergy prevalence rate has been difficult to measure with confidence.

Figures on the national and global food allergy population are unsettled. This is largely because the numbers rely on multiple data sets collected across different methods and research groups. Official estimates place the figure at around 15 million. Adding to this confusion is the difficulty in confirming the presence of an allergy with current diagnostic tools (often IgE testing, discussed above). The majority of food allergy and food intolerance cases depend on self-reporting and sometimes self-diagnosis—and those numbers fluctuate greatly. A recent paper looking at multiple different allergy studies found that “[s]elf-reported prevalence of food allergy varied from 1.2% to 17% for milk, 0.2% to 7% for egg, 0% to 2% for peanuts and fish, 0% to 10% for shellfish, and 3% to 35% for [other foods].” A 2013 paper further suggested that “at least 1%–2% and up to 10% of the US population suffers from food allergies," which based its findings on "self-report, skin prick test (SPT), serum-specific IgE (sIgE), and oral food challenges (OFC).” These reports show that food allergy populations vary based on allergy type, reported severity, geographic region, study design, and testing method.

In short, with no easy and standardized way to diagnose food allergy cases, it is difficult to confirm and measure the perceived rise in the food allergy population.

The LEAP Study and the Future of Oral Immunotherapy

Perhaps the most significant study on food allergy in the last 50 years is the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study by the Immune Tolerance Network. In this study, infants at a higher risk of developing a severe allergy to peanuts were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one that would avoid ingesting peanut-containing foods until age 5, and one that would consume a peanut-containing snack (~6 grams of peanut protein) with three or more meals per week until age 5. Of the children who avoided peanut, 17% developed a peanut allergy, compared to only 3% of the children in the control group. In a press release for the study, one of the researchers noted how for decades allergists have recommended that infants avoid consuming allergenic foods, and this study "suggests that this advice was incorrect and may have contributed to the rise in [] peanut and other food allergies.” Indeed, the LEAP study overturned decades of prior advice and shook the allergy research community. The study also gave credence to one of the oldest forms of allergy treatment: immunotherapy. 

After a decade of research, oral immunotherapy is becoming more widely accepted as effective for the most common food allergies (e.g., peanut), but little is known about its long-term effectiveness. If you’re not familiar, oral immunotherapy (OIT) is a method of food desensitization that involves re-introducing the immune system to the allergenic food in gradually increasing amounts over time, with the goal of eventual tolerance. Although researchers are optimistic about its potential, it is not without its drawbacks. You can learn more about OIT in Allergy Amulet’s blog post here.

The Promise and Peril of Epinephrine

Epinephrine (the hormone adrenaline) was first discovered in 1900 and marketed to treat asthma attacks and surgical shock. By 1906, with the development of a synthetic version, the drug was in common use by clinicians to treat severe asthma attacks. Immunologists and allergists experimented with dosages in the decades following, standardizing treatment protocols.

In 1975, a biomechanical engineer developed the first auto-injector syringe for the military, which was then adapted for use with epinephrine. It wasn’t until 1987, however, that the FDA approved the first epinephrine auto-injector for the general public. Epinephrine auto-injectors proved so effective—and the dosage delivered was so consistent—that it became the standard prescription for anyone suffering from a severe allergy. By the 1990s, food allergy patients were advised to carry one at all times for their safety.

In 2016, the mother of a child with a severe food allergy began a campaign against the dramatic rise in price of one of the most popular epinephrine auto-injector brands: EpiPen. The price of EpiPen surged between 2004 and 2016 – increasing from $100 to over $600. With few competitors on the market, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of the EpiPen, felt no need to lower its prices. The story went viral and sparked debate about pharmaceutical industry pricing policies and access to affordable healthcare. Since the scandal broke, there has been a call to develop alternative and less expensive epinephrine auto-injectors.

The Epi-Pen story—and this post—highlight the urgent need for greater investment in allergy research and innovation. Let’s hope that with new advancements in the coming years, food allergy itself will be history. 

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