My grammar school lunches were usually composed of the same things every day: a peanut butter sandwich, a carton of milk, a piece of fruit, and a granola bar. I think that pretty much every kid I went to school with had a variation on this classic meal. Nowadays, the apple might be the only acceptable piece of that lunch to make it to the cafeteria, since all the other components can trigger severe allergic reactions.
To a child of the eighties like myself, the idea of banning peanuts or milk in schools just sounds crazy. I can’t even imagine school without peanut butter. But kids today live in a different world, one where their friends and classmates are much more likely to suffer from real and scary food allergies. Some kids live in constant fear  of eating an errant peanut or egg. So much for peanut butter being a beloved reminder of childhood.
2.2 Million Kids and Counting
The past ten years have seen a sharp increase in the number of children with food allergies. According to the CDC, one in twenty-six children had a food allergy in 2007, as opposed to one in twenty-nine in 1997. Ninety percent of those allergies were to only eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. Not only are more children than ever experiencing allergies, but they’re also becoming allergic to multiple foods at once. Despite the increasing frequency of childhood food allergies, scientists still aren’t sure what’s causing them.
Antiseptic Culture, Allergy Craze?
Our cultural germ-phobia might be one of the culprits responsible for the uptick in allergies. Watch any commercial on daytime television and it’s obvious that we’re crazy for antibacterial hand gel, antiseptic kitchen supplies, and cleanliness every day, everywhere. If our immune systems are never challenged by bacteria or germs, then they won’t develop and learn to produce antibodies properly. There’s already some evidence that antibacterial soaps contribute to weak immune systems and drug-resistant superbugs. Some allergists believe that our immune systems overreact to food items because they’re underexposed to real threats. Recent studies have concluded that children who grow up in large, busy families or attend daycare with other children are less likely to develop allergies. It’s possible that exposure to germs can actually be a good thing.
Blame It on Mom
For any childhood problem, people always look to the mother for answers. Scientists know that traces of allergens show up in breast milk, so at one time, doctors recommended that pregnant women avoid all allergenic foods in order to minimize their babies’ exposure. Well, any mom who ate shrimp or peanut butter while she was pregnant can relax, because the evidence says it was okay. A study published last year in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that infants who were exposed to peanuts in the womb and through breast milk were actually less likely to develop allergies as a child. If children are never exposed to anything that causes an allergic reaction, their immune systems will always treat that food as an invader. The researchers who performed the study theorize that early exposure to allergens causes the child’s immune system to become desensitized, and less likely to overreact in the future.
In fact, there is little to no evidence that we can prevent allergies by restricting certain foods. Instructing mothers to protect their children from exposure to any allergy-causing food seems to have backfired, since it may be that exposure early and often is the key to combating childhood food sensitivities. Even feeding hypoallergenic formulas, soy milk, or delaying the introduction of eggs, cow’s milk, or peanut butter hasn’t been shown to lessen the chance that a child will develop allergies.
Testing the Waters
A new study by pediatric allergists at Duke University indicates that exposure to allergens may reduce sensitivity. In the study, children with severe peanut allergies were fed small amounts of peanuts, and after carefully increasing the doses several times, most of the children were able to consume peanut products with no reactions at all. The researchers carefully monitored the children and were ready to intervene in the case of an emergency, but the study showed that increasing exposure to peanuts lessened the children’s sensitivity. While some parents were skeptical, the study points to desensitization as an important tool for helping kids potentially overcome their allergies and live normal lives. There is even talk in the scientific community about developing an injectable vaccine against peanut allergen.
Food allergies continue to confound scientists because so much of the evidence is contradictory. Also, while some of the keys to allergies may lie in the environment, there’s also a strong family component. For kids with a family history of severe or life-threatening food allergies, it’s a good idea to restrict or monitor their exposure to new or untested foods. Despite parents doing everything they can, some kids are still going to develop allergies that defy explanation. Until science reveals the key to foolproof management of childhood food allergies, parents and schools can only react and try to protect kids as best they can. Some schools even forbid any child from bringing allergenic foods into the building, force allergy sufferers to eat at a specially designated table, and discourage students from sharing any food. It may seem like they’re going too far, but about 150 people die every year from anaphylactic shock from food allergies, according to the Jaffe Allergy Institute at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine. When it comes to food allergies, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Updated August 25, 2010