Food Allergies Up Among the Young

By Colin McGregor

It’s not your imagination. Your youngster who sniffles and sneezes and erupts is more susceptible to allergies than were their parents and grandparents. 

Children are much more likely to be allergic than they were 25 or 50 years ago. Child allergies are rising at an alarming rate, especially in industrialized countries – by about 50% in the United States between 1997 and 2011. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 30% of the world population is today allergic to something, compared with 3.8% in 1968.

Many allergists consider this an “epidemic.”

Madeleine Epstein, Paris-based allergist and vice president of the French allergists’ union (SYFAL) says “objectively, there are more and more allergic children. When I became an allergist in the 1980s, we barely talked at all about food allergies. Since then, it’s through children that I’ve discovered peanut allergies, milk allergies…  These days, the most frequent food allergies we find among children concern peanuts, nuts, eggs and milk.”

These have a huge impact on children’s daily lives. In France the number one cause of school absenteeism is allergies.

Statistics are hard to come by for Canada and Quebec. There are only 200 medical allergists in Canada. But a 2021 study by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab (AAL) estimated that between 2.5 and 3.1 million Canadians suffered from at least one food allergy. And if you count food intolerances, one quarter of all Canadians suffer from allergies and/or food intolerances. The number one cause of food recalls in Canada in 2020 was over undeclared allergens.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois of the AAL says that most Canadians learned about their sensitivities recently. “Of the people who have claimed that they have an allergy or intolerance, 56 per cent of them have actually noticed that they were allergic or were intolerant in the last five years,” Charlebois says.

What can be done to prevent an allergy?

The causes of these allergies seem to be multiple and complex. Knowing more about them is a great way to prevent their growth.

First of all, children aren’t born allergic. As far as we know, nothing in pregnancy triggers food allergies, observes Dr. Kari Nadeau, Director of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University. “It’s important that mothers know this,” she says.

There are many theories, but one thing is for sure: your environment is a big element. According to the Mayo Clinic, babies born in the developing world have a lower incidence of allergies than babies born in developed countries. But if a family moves to a developed country, childhood allergies rise. The simple fact of living in a developed country seems to play a role.

The hygiene theory suggests that children exposed to germs and infections at a young age develop immune systems that are better adapted to differentiate inoffensive substances from hazardous ones. That explains why children brought up around certain pets and farm animals are less likely to develop allergies.

Do we have to live on a farm in Chad to avoid being food allergies? Let’s hope not. Take a hike in the country. It could help…  

First appeared in Reflet de Société, vol. 31, no. 2, November-December 2022

Available on the Reflet de Société website October 24th, 2022

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