25 facts about food allergies
More than 50 million Americans report having allergic reactions every year, according to data from the CDC. Allergies are regarded as the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., and cost more than $18 billion.
In scientific terms, an allergic reaction occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts to a normally harmless substance, such as peanuts or cat dander. White blood cells that defend our body from foreign invaders go into overdrive when they encounter a type of antibody known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE). The result is an extreme inflammatory response that might include difficulty breathing, vomiting, itchy eyes or ears, or a rash. If the allergic reaction is severe enough, a person can go into what’s called anaphylaxis, where the allergic reaction happens in a matter of seconds or minutes. When this happens, the immune system floods a body with chemicals that cause blood pressure to drop and airways to close up. In other words, your body goes into shock that can result in death if the symptoms aren't treated immediately.
Of the many sources of allergens, allergic reactions to food are among the most common—and the most costly, with an economic burden estimated by researchers reporting in the Journal of the American Medical Association to be $4,184 per child annually (around $25 billion). Between 2007 and 2016, diagnosed anaphylactic food reactions on private insurance claim lines climbed by a shocking 377%, according to a 2017 report from FAIR Health. To find out more about allergies, Stacker curated a gallery of 25 interesting food allergy facts from scientific, and government reports as well as academic research papers and reputable news sources.
From getting someone else’s food allergy to hi-tech plates that can detect allergens in your dinner, keep reading to find out more about food allergies and how people cope.
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32 million Americans have food allergies
Food allergies are very common. According to the organization Food Allergy and Research Education (FARE), 32 million Americans have food allergies. That’s about one in 10 adults. The figure also includes 5.6 million children, which is approximately two kids in every classroom. Also according to FARE, almost half (40%) of children with food allergies have more than one food allergy.
Eight foods account for more than 90% of food allergies
The big eight are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. The Food and Drug Administration requires all food product labels to have the food source name of any ingredients that are these allergens. They also require labels to tell you if they contain any protein that is derived from one of these major allergens.
There are conflicting stats for fatalities from food allergies
It’s been estimated that 150 to 200 fatalities a year in the U.S. are due to food allergies. However, this statistic has been challenged by Forbes and the New York Times, among others. Apparently, the figure comes from a media resource kit of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, now FARE. The figure is thought to be skewed because FARE is a lobbying and educational group that was led by someone who used to be the marketing executive for the makers of the EpiPen.
Last year, only eight people died of food allergies according to the National Food Allergy Death Registry. Further, a 2017 study reported that death due to food allergy was about 0.03 to 0.3 deaths per million people.
It's possible to outgrow allergies
It’s possible to outgrow allergies but it depends on what kind of allergy and how severe it is. Research has shown that 60% to 80% of children who have a milk or egg allergy will be able to eat those foods by the time they’re 16 years old, but only 20% of kids with a peanut allergy will outgrow it. Evidence also suggests that tree nut allergies and fish or shellfish allergies are even harder to outgrow, with only 14% and 4% to 5% respectively, of people being able to eat those later in life.
Smart kitchenware could find hidden allergens
One day you might not need to ask if the baked good was made in a peanut-free environment. Smart kitchenware, such as plate or cutlery, could warn people with allergies if there are problem ingredients.
Back in 2011, industrial designer Hannes Harms, created a prototype system that uses edible radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags to track food from production to your plate. The smart plate that comes with the system can then read the RFID tags and tell you exactly what’s in your dinner. In 2016, a Canadian teen made smart cutlery that detects allergens, nutrients, and toxins. The product is apparently still in the research and development phase but the spoon, fork, and chopstick could be a meal changer.
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Rates of food allergies are rising
Between 1997 and 2011 food allergies in children have increased from 3.4% to 5.1%, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One theory behind the rise in food allergies is the “hygiene hypothesis”, which suggests that the environments that kids are growing up in are too sterile and they aren’t being exposed to enough germs to train their immune system on what’s good or bad. Other research has pointed to increased use of antibiotics and vitamin D deficiency. But so far there’s no clear answer as to why rates are increasing.
200,000 people seek medical care annually for allergies
Food allergies can be serious and life threatening. According to FARE, every three minutes someone ends up in the emergency room because of a food allergy and each year 200,000 people need emergency medical care for an allergic reaction to food. They also note that child hospitalizations for food allergies as well as treatment for anaphylaxis related to food allergies has increased dramatically in recent years.
Raw foods can cause oral allergy syndrome
While not actually a food allergy, people with this syndrome develop symptoms of an allergic reaction, such as itchy mouth, scratchy throat, swelling of the lips, after eating raw fruits, vegetables and sometimes tree nuts.
The syndrome is also referred to as pollen-food allergy syndrome and happens when the immune system is triggered by pollen and similar proteins in the food. People who have this type of allergy usually don’t react if the fruit or vegetable is cooked because heat changes the proteins the immune system usually reacts to.
Food allergies have a major economic impact
Food allergies cost U.S. families a lot of money. Researchers reporting in the Journal of the American Medical Association to be $4,184 per child annually (around $25 billion). Roughly $4.3 billion, or $724 per child, of that amount relates to direct medical costs and out-of-pocket costs for families was $5.5 billion with about a third of that being for special food.
Food allergies have been linked to anxiety
One 2017 study in the Journal of Pediatrics found children with a food allergy were more likely to have anxiety. The study looked at more than 80 children between the ages of four and 12. The researchers found that those with food allergies had more symptoms of social anxiety and higher levels of anxiety in general.
Allergies in general have also been linked to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
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