Image borrowed from: https://www.traxlerprimarycare.com
It seems like almost everyone has an allergy to something!
While it is false that everyone has an allergy, the prevalence of allergies is most definitely on the rise. In particular food allergies. “The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention report that between 1997-1999 and 2009- 2011, food allergy prevalence among children increased by 50 percent.”(1)
This is a major public health concern that needs more awareness and understanding among all of us. Allergies do not discriminate. Allergies can affect Canadians of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Research states that “approximately 2.5 million Canadians self-report having at least one food allergy”(2) which accounts for 7% of the total population. Therefore, it is important to become well-versed on this topic.
First off let’s define what an allergy is. An “allergy occurs when a person's immune system reacts to substances in the environment that are harmless for most people. These substances are known as allergens and are found in dust mites, pets, pollen, insects, ticks, moulds, foods and some medicines.”(3) “The Government of Canada recognizes the most common food allergens as: peanuts, tree nuts, seafood (fish, shellfish, crustaceans), egg, milk, sesame, soy, mustard, and wheat.”(2)
When it comes to food allergies an individual can be born with, inheriting it genetically, or there is a possibility to develop one later in life. “Although allergies to milk, egg, wheat and soy often resolve in childhood, research suggests that children may outgrow at least some of these food sensitivities more slowly than was found in previous decades, with many children still allergic beyond age 5. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish are generally lifelong.”(1) Please note that what is an allergen for one individual is not likely one for someone else. “The likelihood (or risk) of developing allergies is increased if other family members suffer from allergy.”(2)
Every person reacts differently when exposed. Severity of reactions can range anywhere from mild physical symptoms such as a scratchy throat, watery eyes, or skin rash to a life threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis. These serious reactions called ‘anaphylactic reactions’ effect all the major body systems (respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular etc.) and have the capacity to result in death if medical attention is not received promptly.(3)
So why with all of the extensive medical and technological advances are food allergies steadily increasing at alarming rates yearly? It depends on which field of expertise you ask, but there is still a lot of uncertainty to this question and research to be done. In our Western society we are obsessed with fighting off germs. As a result some believe in “one theory, known as the “hygiene hypothesis”, suggests that people living in western countries are living in cleaner and more sanitized environments. The immune system – exposed to fewer germs than our bodies are used to dealing with- mistakenly identifies certain foods as harmful.”(3) But there are other thoughts suggesting a relationship between what a pregnant mother eats and the in-utero effects. “Researchers are continuing to study what foods mothers eat during pregnancy, at different times in the trimester cycle, to determine how that impacts the baby.”(4) Now health professionals are strongly encouraging new parents to introduce foods containing common allergens to their baby around the 6 month mark. Studies have shown this reduces the chance of developing a food allergy.(5)
Many of us have likely noticed the increased prevalence of children with food allergies in the school setting than when we attended years back. Which can be very nerve-racking for parents whose children live with a food allergy, causing constant worry when sending their children off to school every day. Those children who have severe reactions often carry an Epipen with them everywhere for immediate treatment. While complete avoidance of the allergen is the best way to prevent an allergic reaction, it is nearly impossible to live in a ‘plastic bubble’ our entire lives so we have to use other strategies. The best ways to reduce risk is to read food ingredient labels carefully and thoroughly (look for precautionary labels on product packages), practice proper hand washing techniques prior to any food preparation or eating periods, and give special attention to cleaning and sanitizing practices.
There is no known cure for food allergies and mislabeling or cross-contamination occurrences are always possible, but by following proactive and preventative lifestyle management these incidents will be limited.
For those who are parents of school-aged children, there is huge emphasis and rules now in place within schools in regards to allergies. “Milk, egg, and peanut account for the majority of allergic reactions in young children.”(1) Alberta schools have policies in place which apply to all parents regardless if your child is immune or not, and must be followed by all school administration and volunteers. Aside from extra care taken at lunch time; cafeterias, vending machines, bake sales, special classroom parties, and even field trips require this same attention to ingredients.
For all of the FoodImpact Calgary elementary grade workshops, we supply Wowbutter for the students and give them an opportunity to taste test. Wowbutter is a safe and delicious alternative to bring into the school setting because this product contains no nuts (peanut allergy in Canada affects about 2 in 100 children.3), made solely from Non- GMO soybeans which means it is packed with protein and omega-3 fatty acids. The kids always seem to enjoy the Wowbutter, reporting that it tastes very similar to peanut butter. This product is an excellent option for parents to purchase for their children's lunch boxes.
There are lots of other product brands out on the market today for consumers to purchase. For example: Compliments Foods (Sobey’s store brand), Dare Foods, Kraft Foods, Enjoy Life Products, Guardian Angel Foods, President’s Choice, SunButter etc.7
Some of you may have the concept of allergen recipes down-pat in your homes. However, many struggle with coming up with allergen-free snack and lunch ideas to pack for your kids. So here are some healthy and safe options to try out (80:
1. Allergen-free bread or pancakes with Wowbutter/SunButter and some pectin-free jam.
2. Dairy-free grilled cheese sandwich using allergen-free bread and dairy-free cheese.
3. Zucchini noodles with tomato sauce.
4. Fruit smoothies made with a milk alternative or plain water.
5. Raw vegetables and hummus.
1. FARE: Food Allergy Research & Education https://www.foodallergy.org/sites/default/files/migrated-files/file/Final-FARE-Food-Allergy-Facts-Statistics.pdf.
2. Australasain Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy https://www.allergy.org.au/patients/about-allergy/what-is-allergy
3. Food Allergy Canada http://foodallergycanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/Food-Allergy-Key-Facts-Sheet.pdf
4. CNBC https://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/09/allergies-are-on-the-rise-and-here-are-three-reasons-why.html
5. HealthLink BC https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthy-eating/reducing-baby-food-allergy-risk
6. Infographic. FoodImpact Inc.
7. Allergy Mom http://www.allergymom.ca/allergy-aware-brands.html
8. Kitchen Stewardship https://www.kitchenstewardship.com/best-real-food-allergy-friendly-lunches-portable-easy/
Author: Pharyne Hrywkiw
Nutrition Educator, FoodImpact
B.Sc. Nutrition and Food Sciences