Food allergies seem to be much more common nowadays. Once, we thought of food allergies as really only affecting kids, and is something most eventually grow out of, but now it seems much more widespread.
There are agencies that track how common food allergies are and which are most common. Over the last 20 years or so, the data does in fact reveal a spike in the number of food allergies and intolerances. Many factors are being blamed for this supposed spike. Many are pointing the finger at pesticides, others the widespread use of genetically modified foods (which I will just abbreviate GMOs from here on out). What’s particularly concerning about GMOs is that when foods are genetically modified, the protein content of the foods are being adjusted – they’re increasing some, while decreasing others.
That seems harmless, right?
Well, when someone has a food allergy, it’s the protein in the food that the body responds to and causes the allergic response. If we mess with the proteins in our foods, could we be changing how the body responds to those foods? Possibly. I am not saying that GMOs are to blame for the spike in food allergies. But this is a very interesting area of future study.
We also need to keep something else in mind when we consider these data. Are we seeing a spike in food allergies and intolerances because people are actually experiencing these more often, or is it because we are getting better at identifying and reporting this information? Allergy testing, while not perfect, has continued to improve over time and maybe this is why we’re seeing an increase in the number of reported cases.
I mentioned food allergies and intolerances above. I want to clarify the difference: a food allergy involves an immune response. This means that the body’s main defense against harmful pathogens (the immune system) starts to wake up when exposed to certain foods. And it’s not like it just wakes up and goes back to sleep – it wakes up with a roar like it has something to prove. It overreacts and starts to cause symptoms that can range from a stuffy or runny nose, to gas and bloating, to eczema and rashes, all the way to the most serious: anaphylactic shock. How the body will respond depends on the person and how angry their immune system is.
A food intolerance, on the other hand, can still involve uncomfortable symptoms but the immune system basically stays asleep. The body’s response is usually less intense and there’s virtually no risk of someone experiencing anaphylactic shock.
It has been estimated that 0.2-0.4% of the U.S. population has a milk allergy. This means roughly 645,000 up to 1.3 million people in the U.S. have a milk allergy. Again, the accuracy of these numbers depends on whether people actually go see an allergist to get tested, whether the allergist reports it to larger agencies, etc. so don’t put too much stock in these numbers. However, typically milk allergies are not all that common in adults–but lactose intolerance tends to be reported more often. This is because as we get older, our bodies produce less of a very specific enzyme that helps us digest lactose. This happens to all of us as we age, which is why many older adults experience some form of lactose intolerance. If you have a diagnosed milk allergy, you need to be very careful about staying away from foods that contain any milk products. Because, again, your immune system gets really angry when it encounters milk.
If you have been diagnosed with any food allergy, please speak to your doctor about how best to avoid those foods and how to manage your body’s response to it, if you accidentally consume it.