As the number of Americans plagued by food allergies and intolerances has increased, so have the theories of the cause, or causes, behind the rapidly rising allergy rate.
An allergy occurs when the body has an immune system response to a food and the body attacks the food as if it is a harmful invader or pathogen. The most common food allergies are: peanuts, tree nuts, soy, shellfish, dairy, and wheat. Minor allergic reactions are typically rashes or hives, but a major reactions causes the airway to close and send the body into anaphylaxis shock which can lead to death. Teens and young adults have the highest risk of going into anaphylaxis shock.
Food intolerances differ from food allergies because they can include almost any reaction to food, typically caused by an irritated digestive system. An intolerance can be developed for any food and cause a variety of symptoms. The most commonly recognized intolerance is to lactose, the inability to produce lactase and breakdown the sugar in dairy products.
According to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study released in 2013, food allergies have increased approximately 50 percent among children between 1997 and 2011. While the exact number of American children living with food allergies can only be estimated, roughly one in 13 children under the age of 18 or about two in every classroom are impacted.
Multiple theories have been presented, argued, and rejected in different scientific, doctoral, and functional medicine communities. Careers have been dedicated to finding the cause of expanding number of children with allergies and how to cure it. Some theories have overlapping themes, while other have almost nothing in common.
A dominant theory in select communities is that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and processed food are contributing to the rise in allergy rates. In the mid-1990s, scientist began introducing newly engineered food proteins into daily-consumed foods. The dairy industry was part of this first wave of change. To increase the production of milk, farmers began giving cows a genetically engineered growth hormone, Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). Coincidently, milk is now the number one food allergy in the United States.
Other common allergenic foods have undergone changes as well, such as, soy and corn, to be able to handle large doses of weed killer by being genetically altered to create their own pesticides. Dr. Mercola, osteopathic physician and expert in alternative medicine, argues because an allergic reaction to food occurs with the “body reacts to a food protein as a foreign invader,” these new or ‘foreign’ GMOs, hormones, food colorings, flavorings, and preservatives are likely contributing the rising allergy rate.
Other scientists and doctors are skeptical of GMOs causing allergies. In order for a GMO to be approved to be produced for the food supply, reviewing committees must decide if it has a high or low probability of causing allergies. Additionally, there are doctors and organizations that believe there is no known cause for the allergy rate.
Another widely known and supported theory is the hygiene hypothesis, stating that “excessive cleanliness interrupts the normal development of the immune system, and this change leads to an increase in allergies.” Immune systems need to be exposed to germs and dirt to build strength, but the Western lifestyle has removed this exposure through high antibiotic use, improved sanitation, and extra clean environments. This hypothesis argues allergy rates are rising because as the world has modernize through medical technology and removal of parasite infections a perfect environment for allergies has been created.
There is no clear and agreed upon theory for what is causing the increase of food allergies to be rising rapidly or how to stop the growth. The source could be GMOs or too sterile of environments, or possibly a combination. Some doctors and scientists believe it is not one reason, but many factors, such as, C-sections, smaller family sizes, genetics, Vitamin D deficiency, poor gut flora, in addition to the previously noted theories. Regardless, food allergies and intolerances are becoming a norm in American culture and plaguing an unprecedented number of children.
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Sources: The Rise of Food Allergies and First World Problems, UCLA Food & Drug Allergy Care Center: Why are Allergies Increasing, Palo Alto Medical Foundation: Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance, FARE: Facts and Statistics, Bt Corn: The Popular Food that Turns Your Gut into a Pesticide Factory, The Truth is out on Genetically Modified Foods- And It’s Not Pretty, GMO Compass: Do GMOs Mean More Allergies?