The number of food allergies in the world has been on the rise in recent decades.
When eating in the school cafeteria, at a party or at a local restaurant, most high school teenagers will order food based on what they feel like eating. However, junior Rebeccah Hunter must take an extra safety precaution. Since she is allergic to wheat, she needs to make sure the foods she is eating do not contain anything that may start an allergic reaction.
“When I get wheat, I kind of feel like I have no energy left and I get a really bad stomachache,” Hunter said. “Basically, I feel like crud.”
Hunter’s food allergy is not uncommon. According to Newsweek, a study two years ago placed the rate of food allergies at one in 70 children, compared with one in 250 children in the 1970s. The rise in food allergies has caused some public schools around the nation to react. For example, according to The Boston Globe, Dedham High School in Dedham, MA is scheduled to discuss a new policy this January that calls for eliminating food as a “reward or incentive” and prohibiting the sale of outside food and beverages during the school day to keep allergic students safe.
David Patterson, an allergist and clinical immunologist who is on staff at St. Vincent Hospital, Clarian North Medical Center and Community Hospitals Indianapolis, said no one really knows for sure why allergies are on the rise.
However, one reason may be the changes in public sanitation in the past few decades.
“Instead of people dying from poor public sanitation (in the mid-1900s), people started to develop other problems,” Patterson said. “That’s when I think the instance of allergies started to rise, maybe because of what we’ve done to our environment in terms of vaccinations, and public health and antibiotics, and the way we raise our children and the way we process our food.”
Hunter said the particular rise in wheat allergies may be due to a change in processing milk, specifically, pasteurization or boiling of milk to kill the bacteria.
“Pasteurized milk can cause that sort of allergy in a person,” Hunter said. “Your body isn’t built to handle pasteurized foods. It’s not built to handle processed foods either. Theoretically, if (I) drank raw milk instead of pasteurized milk, my wheat allergy might go away.”
One factor that may affect the viability of an allergy, as Patterson previously said, is the change in the process of foods. Another factor may be the age of the person who becomes allergic. Patterson said allergies are more likely to affect children than adults.
“You can get it the first time as an adult, but mostly you get it as a child,” Patterson said.
Hunter said she first had an allergic reaction to wheat when she was 14 on a vacation in France.
“I got home and I was like, ‘Mom, this is what happened to me all through France.’ I had this huge red rash all across my neck, and it was awful and horrible. I went off wheat and it went away,” Hunter said.
Similarly, junior Mason Yao remembers being allergic to fruit at eight years old. “I would say (my allergy) possibly affected my earlier life,” Yao said. “Earlier I was pudgy, it would have done me well to eat (fruit), because I love sweet things, and fruits are sweet, but they gave me allergic reactions, so I didn’t want to eat the fruit. So possibly I could have been skinnier had I been able to eat fruit.”
However, Yao said since his reaction is not extreme, sometimes he chooses to disregard his allergy. “Later on, mostly in high school, when I realized apples are tasty and they’re like healthy, sometimes I eat an apple, and I get (the allergic reaction), but I can ignore it, because it’s not very severe,” Yao said.
Hunter also said her allergy only slightly affects her life. She can eat the same foods as everyone else, except with minor changes to the ingredients. “Basically everything that everyone else eats like bread and cakes and cookies, I eat too,” Hunter said. “It’s just made out of something different so I have to buy different bread than everyone else.”
However, the root cause or causes for the rise in allergies is yet to be known. Patterson also said there are a number of treatments for allergies, but doctors continue to search for new cures.
“Over a number of decades, we’ve had newer and newer drugs and better drugs (doctors) are starting to come out with,” Patterson said. “There may be novel treatments coming out in the next decade. Our understanding with the human genome will probably help spur some novel treatments. Maybe one day there will be a cure (for allergies).