Food allergies in American children have doubled within the last six years and currently affect more than 6 million children across the U.S., or about 8%.
Research is currently being done to find the cause of the dramatic increase in food allergies, which Dr. Hong expects will result in new recommendations for parents and a treatment within the next decade.
Here are a few theories scientists are exploring:
- The “Hygiene Hypothesis.” This theory suggests that childhood exposure to germs and certain infections helps the immune system develop, providing protection against allergies and asthma. For example, a recent study suggested that children whose parents lick their child’s pacifier to clean it have lower incidences of allergies.
- Earlier exposure to certain foods. The rise in food allergies has coincided with recommendations that young children avoid milk before 1 year of age, eggs before age 2 and peanuts before age 3. Studies are exploring whether introducing these foods earlier might help to condition a child’s immune system toward tolerating such foods.
- Processing of foods. Countries that rely on the “Western diet” dominated by processed foods have higher incidences of food allergies. The way a food is processed can increase the allergenicity. For example, in China, peanuts are boiled while in the United States, we dry roast them. Studies have found that dry roasting peanuts causes them to be more likely to cause allergic reactions.
There has not been any change in recommendations for protecting young children from food allergies, but for children who already have food allergies like egg and milk, Dr. Hong is increasingly introducing small amounts of these foods in a baked form to help develop tolerance.
“Eighty percent of children can tolerate these particular foods baked into products. Those are the kids who are more likely to grow out of their allergies and develop a tolerance,” she says.