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Why has there been an increase in food allergies?

Leigh Vinocur, MD
Emergency Medicine
The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) states that food allergies affect about 3% of the general population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 15 million people have food allergies, accounting for over 300,000 visits to doctors in offices and ERs around the country.

This question of whether food allergies are indeed rising is somewhat debated in the medical community too, according to Dr. Sami Bahna, M.D., a professor and the Chief of Allergy and Immunology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, Louisiana. He is the past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Dr. Bahna has lectured on this topic extensively and he feels that food allergies are, in fact, on the rise, in developed nations. There are several theories behind this. The first is something called the “hygienic hypothesis” which theorizes that in essence people are too clean! The extensive use of antibiotics and antibacterial cleansers, as well as the chemical treatment of water and waste in the Western world, has eliminated many bacterial and parasitic threats. To this, he states, “Therefore, our idle immune system has taken to attacking foreign food proteins as if they are invading bacterial germs.”

Another contributing factor is our overuse of medications for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which decrease stomach acid and can interfere with the full digestion of these food proteins. “Stomach acidity,” he says, “is required to adequately digest proteins and reduce their allergenicity.”

Lastly, in this global society, people are exposed to such a variety of foods from around the world. There is no such thing as seasonal food any longer. You can get any type of food at any time in your local grocery; often, these new and unusual food combinations cause allergic reactions.

It is modern society that in essence is causing the rise in food allergies. Dr. Bahna states, “We have become victims to our own scientific and technological advances and successes!"

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.