Why do Food Allergies Plague the U.S.?

February 28, 2018

A 2013 study published in JAMA revealed that people in the U.S. get more food allergies than in other countries, and that even moving here increases your chances of developing one. It’s a big problem, costing the U.S. some $25 billion annually, not to mention the human suffering and, in the worst cases, fatalities.

Research published last May in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reports that 3.6% of us have some kind of food allergy, with women more commonly affected at 4.2%, and men at 2.9%. We’re talking about reactions to shellfish, fruit or vegetables, dairy, tree nuts, additives, grains, and that frightening, even deadly, allergy so common in children, peanuts. (Fortunately, there may be good news for that last group, as we’ll see.)

It seems likely things are getting worse, not better

It’s hard to tell if things are generally getting worse or not since the new research uses a different methodology than previous studies have, and the new report’s authors consider their data more trustworthy. A study released in 2014, for example, found that there was a significant increase since 2006 in U.S food allergies, up to 5% for adults and 8% for children, which makes it sound as if the new study’s statistics mean things are getting better.

“However,” as one of the authors of the new research, Li Zhou notes, “most studies reporting food allergy epidemiology use cross-sectional surveys, a method often limited by small sample size and selection bias.” In addition, most focus on a particular allergy or allergy group. The new research instead leverages the information in allergy modules built into electronic health records. This data is at least semi-standardized and allows more useful population-based estimates. Supporting the idea that allergies are increasing, food-induced hospitalizations have increased over the last decade from 0.6 per 1000 patients to 1.3 per 1000 patients. That’s more than double.

What is it about the U.S that’s causing so many food allergies?

It’s not clear what’s going on, though there’s a good-sized list of conditions that can promote immune-system issues such as food allergies, and they’re all present in the States.

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