Creating an allergic food environment?


by David Wallinga, M.D. • 10/24/08 • The first federal report on the issue documents an apparent rise in food allergies in American kids, now affecting about 3 million children.

Speculation by researchers that greater parent awareness may account for the increase makes me laugh. Sort of.

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Mostly, it reminds me of what Dr. Phil Landrigan used to say about the increase in hypospadias in young boys. That’s a condition where at birth the opening of the urethra comes out somewhere other than the tip of the penis, where it belongs. Dr. Landrigan pointed out that this is one condition where even health researchers couldn’t say that greater awareness was responsible for parents noticing a problem.

Food allergies, which in many cases can send parents to the emergency room or running for an “epi pen” to stop allergic reactions, are another one of those conditions where “greater awareness” just doesn’t pass the laugh test. Rather, I think it’s clear that something is dramatically different in our children’s environment. To my mind, it’s possible a constellation of new factors may be interacting to cause a rise in food allergies—factors that we’re not tracking very well.

Two possibilities come immediately to mind. The first is chemical pollution. There’s ample documentation that exposure to environmental chemicals increases levels of inflammation in the body, perhaps including the kind of inflammation one sees at the level of the cell with allergic conditions. Some kinds of chemical pollution, like exposure to formaldehyde, can actually hypersensitize the immune system to develop more allergic-like reactions, like asthma.

Then, there’s the American diet. Over the last 60 years or so, we’ve made a number of changes to our diets that have made them hyperinflammatory. Mostly, this has been the substituting of oils from corn and soybeans—our two largest crops, which are high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids—in place of more helpful oils that are higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, like canola, walnut or olive oils.

Some, like NIH scientist Joe Hibblen, M.D., worry that this inflammatory American diet could be behind the rise in numerous chronic diseases, from diabetes and stroke to heart disease and even allergies.

Seems like what kids today really may be allergic to is not foods, per se, but the bigger food system that we’ve created for them. Too bad more researchers aren’t looking into that issue.

David Wallinga, M.D., Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy