Understanding the Rise in Food Allergies: A Guide for Parents

May is Food Allergy Awareness Month, a crucial time to understand the growing number of food allergies among children. If you’re over 35, you likely recall a time when food allergies were rare among schoolchildren. However, if you’ve had a child in the last 20 years, you’ve witnessed the exponential increase in food allergies. Let’s dive into the reasons behind this trend and explore the difference between food allergies and food intolerances, the common symptoms, and recent research linking folic acid to food allergies.

Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerances

It’s essential to differentiate between food allergies and food intolerances. Food allergies trigger an immune system response, potentially leading to severe, life-threatening reactions. On the other hand, food intolerances stem from digestive issues, causing discomfort but rarely posing a serious health risk. The most common food allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. Together, these eight foods cause 90% of allergic reactions in the United States.

Recognizing Food Allergy Symptoms

Symptoms of food allergies can vary widely, from mild skin reactions like hives to severe anaphylaxis, a condition requiring immediate treatment with an epinephrine auto-injector (epi-pen). In severe cases, symptoms can escalate to difficulty breathing and a drop in blood pressure. Symptoms can occur within minutes of ingestion or up to two hours later, and in some cases, a second wave of symptoms, known as a biphasic reaction, can occur hours after the initial symptoms subside.

It’s crucial to recognize the early signs of food allergies, especially in children who may not articulate their symptoms clearly. Some common phrases children might use to describe a reaction include:

  • “This food is too spicy.”
  • “My tongue is hot [or burning].”
  • “My tongue [or mouth] is tingling [or burning].”
  • “It feels like something’s poking my tongue.”
  • “There’s a frog in my throat.”
  • “My lips feel tight.”

If your child uses any of these phrases or exhibits unusual behavior after eating, consider getting them tested for food allergies. Early diagnosis can help prevent severe reactions and ensure you have the necessary medications on hand, such as an epi-pen, in case of an emergency.

Folic Acid and Food Allergies: New Research Findings

One of the latest research studies has drawn a potential connection between folic acid food fortification and the rising number of food allergies in children. Since 1998, the U.S. government has required folic acid to be added to processed foods like flours, pastas, breads, cereals, and rice. The program aimed to reduce the risk of Neural Tube Defects in newborns, but a study presented at the 2018 American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and World Allergy Organization Joint Congress suggests that it may have unintended consequences.

The study found that higher levels of unmetabolized folic acid at birth were associated with an increased risk of food allergies in children. Researchers followed 1,394 kids and found that 507 had food sensitization, with 78 developing food allergies. This correlation points to the possibility that the 50% increase in food allergies since the late 1990s could be linked to folic acid fortification.

If you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy, it’s essential to note that folate is still necessary for a healthy pregnancy. However, this study only applies to synthetic folic acid, not natural folate found in leafy greens or the methylfolate and folinic acid forms of folate. If you’re concerned about the risk of food allergies, consider obtaining your folate from natural sources or supplements with methylfolate or folinic acid instead of synthetic folic acid.

Conclusion: Managing and Preventing Food Allergies

While there’s no cure for food allergies, early recognition and avoidance of trigger foods can help manage symptoms and prevent severe reactions. If your child exhibits signs of a food allergy, get them tested as soon as possible to determine the allergens and take appropriate precautions. Remember to always carry an epi-pen if your child has a known food allergy.

If you’d like to learn more about health-related topics, visit CenturionLabs.com or subscribe to the Frontline Health podcast. Until next time, take ownership of your health, because no one cares more about your health than you!