Food allergies still mystify

by Allison Sebolt
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With food allergies on the rise and peanut allergies taking the lead as what is assumed to be the most common food allergy, researchers are trying to determine what is causing the increase.

"Food allergy is a serious and sometimes fatal condition for which there is no cure," said Xiu-Min Li, associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Chinese Herbal Therapy for Allergy and Asthma at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "Approximately 80% of fatal or near-fatal anaphylaxis cases are due to peanut allergy in this country. There is an urgent need for effective therapies to prevent and treat those who suffer from food allergies."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an 18% increase in food allergies among children from 1997 to 2007.

Scott Sicherer, associate professor of pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said the leading theory on the cause of the increased incidence of food allergies is the hygiene hypothesis, which asserts society has cleaned its living environment so much the immune system doesn’t have much to do. As a result, the immune system reacts and attacks non-harmful substances. He also said other theories on the rise of food allergies include feeding infants whole proteins too early or too late. In addition, there are considerations on how foods are processed, which may involve roasting peanuts and making peanut butter out of it compared to boiling peanuts. He said there is a lack of clear evidence for these ideas, though.

Another possible contributor to allergies is childhood obesity. A recent study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found obese children and adolescents are at an increased risk of having some kind of allergy, especially to food.

"We found a positive association between obesity and allergies," said Darryl Zeldin, acting clinical director for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "While the results from this study are interesting, they do not prove that obesity causes allergies. More research is needed to further investigate this potential link."

The study found obese children were about 26% more likely to have allergies then children at a normal weight. Specifically, food allergies were the most common with the rate of having a food allergy 59% higher for obese children.

A new study Dr. Li worked with found a botanical drug may provide the key to treating peanut allergies as Food Allergy Herbal Formula produced long-term protection following treatment against peanut-induced anaphylaxis in mice. The study found the treatment protected peanut allergic mice from anaphylaxis for more than 36 weeks after treatment was discontinued. There is also other research indicating folic acid may help suppress allergic reactions.

Many professionals are recommending increased regulations for wording on labeling in regards to allergies.

Dr. Sicherer helped author a study that looked at the use of allergen advisory labels in reference to the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act and how consumers react to sometimes ambiguous labeling that uses phrases such as "contains," "may contain," and "shared facility." The study was published through the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, and overall it found 17% of products surveyed of a database of more than 20,000 contained advisory labels, and categories such as chocolate candy and cookies were the most likely to use such labeling.

The study attributed the high rate of use of advisory language as a factor in why consumers with allergies might be ignoring such labeling. In addition, the study found many inconsistencies and ambiguities with the labeling that may lead to consumer confusion. It concluded regulations regarding when and how to use advisory labels and limiting the terminology used may help improve consumer safety.

Despite there being no cure and limited treatments, one study found poor knowledge in the general public about the difference between food allergy and food intolerance, the absence of a cure and current treatments.

"The public’s food allergy knowledge and awareness is critical to the safety of children with food allergy, especially since 76% of food allergy-related deaths follow consumption of foods outside the home," said Ruchi S. Gupta with the Mary Ann & J. Wilburn Smith Children Health Research Program at Children’s Memorial Research Center in Chicago.

Almost half of respondents believed a cure exists for food allergies, and more than two-thirds said a daily medicine may be taken to prevent a food allergy reaction. In addition, more than 40% believed other means existed to preventing life-threatening reactions. Nearly 85% of respondents said schools should have a plan to keep food-allergic children safe, but most parents were not in favor of implementing specific school policies, such as banning peanut products or having special tables for allergic children.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, August 4, 2009, starting on Page 25. Click here to search that archive.

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