Why food allergies are common among young students

CREATED Sep 2, 2014

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  • DES PLAINES, IL - FEBRUARY 15: French fries sit on a table at a McDonald's restaurant February 15, 2006 in Des Plaines, Illinois. McDonald's announced February 13 that their french fries contain potential allergens from both wheat and dairy ingredients used to add flavor. (Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images) Image by Getty Images

It's that time of the year again. Children are heading back into the classroom for another year of homework, group projects, and hot lunches. But for some students, this means another year of challenges because of food allergies. 

Food allergies have been on the rise nationally over the past two decades, according to expert allergist Dr. Martin Lobell. The rise is particularly evident with children. 
"According to CDC numbers, there was an 18-percent increase in food allergies in the United States between 1997 and 2007," Lobell explained. "In children, (there's been) a 50-percent rise between 1997 and 2011." 
There is no single explanation for these rising numbers, but the most common reasoning is attributed to a 'hygeine hypothesis.' Popular products, like antibacterial soaps, eliminate germs to the extent that it can change people's immune systems. 
"The new system, instead of responding to these infectious organisms and other organisms," Lobell said, "now starts responding to antigens, foods and pollens that it normally never bothered responding to, and that's why people started reacting more." 
Other explanations suggest that societal changes in diet have led to this rise in food allergies. People today are eating more processed food over natural options like fruits and vegetables, which could impact how our bodies' process food. The rise has also been linked to differences in cultures and food preparation. 
For example, peanuts. Dr. Lobell points out that other cultures have diets rich in peanuts, but they have few cases of peanut allergies. 
"It's not the amount of peanuts we believe," he said, "but in Asian cultures mostly peanuts are boiled, same with African cultures, whereas in the United States, they're roasted. That has an effect." 
Scientists have also attributed rising food allergy cases to lower levels of vitamin D, Omega 3 fatty acids, or even cosmetics, many of which have food products in them. It's also been suggested that food allergies can start in the womb. Dr. Lobell said that researchers previously have thought that pregnant and nursing mothers should avoid highly allergenic foods, but now research illustrates the opposite. 
"Mothers who eat peanuts or nuts while they're pregnant," he explained, "their children have a lower incident of treenut and peanut allergies." 
While food allergies have become increasingly common, there are still conflicting theories and no definitive answer for the rise, Dr. Lobell said.