To Baby Boomers and members of the Greatest Generation, food allergies were an anomaly. Few had to worry about the possibility of an All-American treat like peanut butter causing problems.
Times have changed.
For years, food allergies have been increasing in the American population, and scientists and physicians have been working to explain phenomenon.
According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, the prevalence of food allergies increased for children under the age of 18 between 1997 and 2011. Specifically, the increase in allergies to peanuts was marked.
The New England Journal of Medicine noted that the prevalence of the allergy has nearly quadrupled recently. In 1997, peanut allergy affected 0.4 percent of American children. However, it increased to 1.4 percent in 2008 and more than 2 percent in 2010.
On the whole, peanut allergies (and other food allergies) are still rare in terms of total population. Despite that fact, the impact of the issue can be seen in everyday life.
The peanut butter and jelly sandwich, once the king of brown-bag lunches, has been banned in certain schools. Some airlines have stopped serving peanuts as an in-flight snack. Parents are thinking twice before serving “ants on a log” to their children’s friends.
So what’s going on? Are today’s kids just weaker than their forebears?
Well, there might be several answers to that question.
Medical professionals and scientists have known for a long time that certain foods, such as peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, shellfish and fish, can produce strong allergic reactions.
In a (potentially misguided) attempt to protect infants and toddlers, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2000 that parents limit exposure to those foods until the age of three. At the time, the AAP hypothesized that early exposure could lead to allergic reactions. In 2008, the group retracted its recommendation.
Now, some physicians believe the lack of exposure to these foods early in life can lead to a more extreme immune reaction. A recent study showed a correlation between expecting mothers eating peanuts and lower instances of peanut and tree nut allergies. However, it wasn’t a controlled experiment. Just correlation.
Some other long-term, controlled studies are focusing on the subject, but we will have to wait for any conclusions on the matter.
Our grandparents, had no such reservations. The didn’t have Dr. Oz or parenting blogs or a hundred books telling them how they should be raising their kids. Granted, that doesn’t mean they were always right.
For example, smoking and drinking during pregnancy was much more common in the 60’s. But one has to think parents back then weren’t avoiding peanut butter and eggs at all costs before the age of three. It’s also reasonable to assume less processed food was available, but more on that later…
Other leading explanations center on the environment we’ve created in this modernized, industrialized country. As our civilization has advanced, we’ve left some things behind, and it’s starting to present problems.
It all comes back to the theme of exposure.
The hygiene hypothesis argues Western countries and recently developing countries have become too clean. While it sounds like a great excuse for a kid trying to avoid bath time, the consequences could be quite serious.
Essentially, young children aren’t exposed to enough bacteria, viruses and infections, and it impedes the development of the immune system. In turn, it’s theorized that the limited exposure increases the chances of allergies and autoimmune disease later in life.
So, while grandpa was outside collecting grass stains and skinning his knees, modern children are slathered in Purrell and are protected by each and every thing by overzealous helicopter parents. Now we could be seeing the results of an over-sanitized, over-protective culture.
Yet another explanation blames Western diets. A Study by physicians in Italy compared gut bacteria from healthy children in a small agrarian village in Burkina Faso and healthy children in Florence, Italy.
The children from Burkina Faso, who subsist on a high-fiber, seasonal and mostly vegetarian diet, showed greater biodiversity of bacteria. The Italian children, on the other hand, had a typical Western diet higher in fat, sugar, protein and starch. Predictably, they had less diverse bacteria.
Increased biodiversity in the gut is important. It helps resistance to pathogens and trains the body’s immune system not to attack body itself or harmless pathogens. The result is fewer instances of allergies and autoimmune diseases.
What’s happened is that one door has been closed but another’s been opened.
Western countries have been able to control infectious disease with hygiene measures and vaccines. Nonetheless, our taste for processed food with high sugar and fat content has reduced exposure to certain bacterias. That doesn’t sound bad until you realize it’s very possible that lack of exposure to those bacterias could lead to problems such as food allergies.
It’s frustrating, and there seems to be no easy answer.
However, if there is a common thread among these theories, it could be the virtue in letting our guard down. It’s easy to want to protect and shelter something as precious as a child. But, we have to ask ourselves, could it be beneficial in the long run to let go a little bit?
Perhaps, we need to expose our children to more. Let them have a bite of your PB&J. Let them play in the dirt and the grass. Even though it’s quick and easy, put the box of mac and cheese down once in a while.
Who knows? It could save us all a lot grief down the road.