It’s no secret that food allergies have reached epidemic proportion in the United States. If our children don’t personally attend a “peanut-free” school, we know someone else who does. And nowadays, trying to plan a family dinner is an exercise in creative exclusion as we attempt to whip up a dish that’s gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, nut-free—and still tasty.
Meanwhile, the data only confirms what many parents already know. According to a 2013 study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food allergies among children increased 50% between 1997 and 2011. And this report came just five years after the CDC found an 18% increase in children’s allergies between 1997 and 2007.
So what’s the cause of the America’s allergy explosion? Theories abound. In a blog post, Madeline Jacks, a holistic nutritionist based in Santa Barbara, California, explained how the increased prevalence of food allergies can be attributed to the Standard American Diet. “In the U.S., we process the heck out of our food,” she writes. “Even milk, once as pure and real a food as it gets, is now one of the most processed foods on the market. Commercial sellers homogenize it, pasteurize it, shoot additives into it to make it last longer on the shelf—you name it. Pasteurization can produce versions of a particular protein that are highly indigestible and highly allergenic. This is the primary reason that pasteurized dairy is so much more allergenic than raw dairy.”
It’s not just dairy that’s the culprit, either. During a time when even neighborhood grocery stores carry a gluten-free version of nearly every wheat-based food product, Jacks once again points to American food manufacturing: “Hybridization efforts have increased the gluten content that gives wheat products the palatable qualities [read: doughy goodness] other grains cannot match. Our digestive tracts can’t keep up.”
Other experts claim a “hygiene hypothesis”—that is, that by limiting childhood exposure to infectious agents, microorganisms and parasites, our super-clean environments actually stunt the natural development of our immune systems, ultimately creating an increased susceptibility to allergies. This theory is also thought to be especially true in the case of babies born via c-section, who don’t travel through the birth canal and, thus, are not exposed to the mother’s microbial imprint.
But while thoughts on the cause of food allergies can very widely, experts do agree that no two allergic reactions are the same.
Allergies vs. Sensitivities
Traditional allergies are created when the body mistakes a particular food as a harmful substance, explains Rene Ficek, a Registered Dietitian and lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating. “IgE antibodies are released, mounting a defense against the food in the body with a release of chemicals like histamine, which causes the allergic reaction,” she says. “Symptoms of an allergic reaction can manifest in a minor way as rashes, itching, hives or swelling; or in a severe way, like when people have serious trouble breathing and can lose consciousness.”
These are the reactions we typically associate with allergies, and they are the unfortunate stories that are often retold on the evening news, when a kid mistakenly eats a peanut butter cookie and collapses into (sometimes fatal) anaphylactic shock. But the vast majority of children with food reactions don’t suffer from traditional allergies. Instead, they have what is known in the medical community as a food sensitivity or intolerance.
Though they are related to food allergies in that they are triggered by an offending food, the reactions to food sensitivities are less acute and often delayed and, as such, are typically much more difficult to diagnose and treat. “Most [traditional] allopathic physicians test only for food allergies,” says Gary Merel, founder of Ann Arbor Holistic Health and an expert in Chinese medicine and acupuncture. “While these tests can be accurate, they only identify 5% of the population that reacts to a given food. Usually this reaction is severe and immediate, much like child reacting to a peanut allergy, but scientific literature clearly shows that most people have food sensitivities. Those immune reactions are delayed and can manifest days, weeks or even months after exposure.”
Food sensitivities can cause any number of health concerns, from dry skin or eczema, to hay fever and seasonal allergies, to constipation, bloating and irritable bowel syndrome. And in the case of children with an unidentified gluten sensitivity, Merel adds, 25% are at an increased risk of developing an autoimmune illness (like juvenile arthritis or type-1 diabetes) by age 10.
The Road to Recovery
Aside from keeping a food log to help pinpoint which foods tend to cause a reaction in your child, Merel recommends both the ELISA and Alcat food sensitivities tests. These blood tests may be especially helpful in determining allergies and sensitivities when the reaction to a food doesn’t present until 24 to 48 hours (or more) after consumption.
From that point, the most reliable way to minimize or eliminate reactions is to eliminate the offending food from the diet. Dr. Irene Mikhail of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, says there is ongoing research in the area of immunotherapy, but, while promising, it is far from becoming the standard in treatment. “Immunotherapy is way of tricking the body to tolerate something it previously recognized as an allergen,” Mikhail says. “The ultimate goal is to get to a point of ‘immunologic tolerance,’ where the body has no memory of the food as an allergen regardless of exposure to the food or stresses. At this time, the best we’ve been able to do is prolonged desensitization—meaning the body doesn’t recognize the food as an allergen as long as the body is exposed to the food with some regularity. We are still not sure what would happen after a period of prolonged avoidance, or when the body is exposed to stress.”
In the meantime, Merel recommends working to restore the gastro-intestinal tract of any child with food allergies or sensitivities, as around 70% of the immune system is located in the GI tract. “The first step to helping a child with food-related health issues is to remove the offending foods,” he explains. “The second step is to restore gut integrity. This should first be done with eating a healthy diet. It is important to provide a diet high in whole foods that include fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs and organic meat and dairy products. It is critical to eliminate processed foods and foods high in sugar. Naturally fermented food such as sauerkraut and pickles can be helpful in restoring healthy gut bacteria, and, when needed, gut integrity can also be restored with some simple supplements that include bovine colostrum and probiotics.”
It’s all certainly overwhelming for parents struggling to get food on the table and navigate birthday parties where pizza and ice cream is the typical meal of choice, but Merel does have some reassuring news: “With minor exception, most children will outgrow most reactions to food,” he says. “And this tends to more true for food sensitivities [which impact a larger number of kids] than for food allergies.”