Why does it seem everyone has a food allergy?

If you’ve ever wondered, “Do more people have food allergies these days?” you’re not alone. It seems as if almost overnight people all over are suddenly allergic to things like milk, eggs, peanuts and wheat – once seen as dietary staples.

It’s not your imagination that food allergies are everywhere. In fact, 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. About two kids in every school classroom have a food allergy – hence the prevalence of peanut-free policies.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported that between 1997 and 2011 food allergies increased by 50 percent.

So why the sudden upswing in food allergies? A number of studies have generated findings and theories, including human interaction with the environment and exposure to more pollution as well as the greater prevalence of processed foods, explained Dr. Meredith Moore of Charleston Allergy & Asthma.

Other studies show that when people are exposed to fewer bacteria, they have a greater risk for developing allergies, Moore said.

Even with the research, it’s difficult to point to just one overwhelming reason more people have food allergies today than 20 years ago. It’s a number of factors, including a person’s unique immune system, she said.

“It’s about understanding your family history and being alert to your risk for food allergies,” Moore said.

A handful of foods are the greatest culprits for allergies. Eight foods account for 90 percent of all reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Allergies can range in their severity, but for those with serious allergies, even the slightest exposure can be life-threatening. In fact, every 3 minutes a food allergy reaction sends someone to the hospital.

The prospect of food allergies can be scary for parents, especially as they begin to introduce new foods to their babies. The good news is that research is showing that introducing babies to foods at an early age can lessen their chances of developing food allergies.

Unless a child has a family history of food allergies, most foods can be introduced to babies at the time they begin eating solid foods – usually at 4 to 6 months of age.

In the case of peanut allergies, a significant study in 2015, called Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP), showed that children with certain risk factors for a peanut allergy who are introduced to peanuts before age 1 and regularly eat a snack containing peanuts have a reduced likelihood of developing the allergy.

Risk factors for developing a peanut allergy include eczema, egg allergy or a family history. In that case, Moore recommends that parents work with a board certified allergist who can evaluate the child and create a process for safely feeding the child peanuts.