Child food allergies on the rise in the US

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Child food allergies on the rise in the US

Related tags: Food allergy

There has been an 18 percent increase in reported food allergy among US children between 1997 and 2007, according to new research.

And the article in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics ​reports that parents of almost four percent of US children reported a food or digestive allergy in their child.

The study's lead researcher Amy Branum, a health statistician for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suggests that greater awareness may partially explain the dramatic increase in rates of pediatric food allergies.

But she claims more research is needed to determine what factors exactly are contributing to this increase.

The study notes that peanut allergies accounted for nine percent and egg allergies seven percent and milk allergies accounted for 12 percent, claims the author.

“The data show there is a very high co-occurrence of conditions such as asthma, skin allergy or eczema, and respiratory allergies that co-exist with food allergy,” ​said Branum.

The most common allergies among children are cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soybeans and wheat, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI), while the most common among adults are peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, fruits and vegetables.

Cross-contamination

Allergen contamination is a big problem for manufacturers, who must make costly recalls if their products contain allergens that are not listed on the label.

Food processors must follow good manufacturing practices (GMPs) to reduce the risk of allergen contamination including regular reviews of product labels, equipment, cleaning practices, product handling, and final product and packaging inspection.

Disclosure

The prevalence of allergy and difficulties for allergy sufferers in choosing appropriate products led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to introduce the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) in 2006.

The Act mandates the disclosure of eight food allergens in the ingredient statement: Milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nuts, fish, and crustacean shellfish – but it does not regulate advisory labels.

Labeling ambiguity
Recently, researchers behind a major review of voluntary allergen advisory labels called for more regulation for allergen labeling to remove ambiguities and make life easier for allergy sufferers.

Their study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology​, surveyed 20,241 manufactured food products and found that 17 percent included advisory labels, with chocolate confectionery, cookies, and baking mixes accounting for more than 40 percent or the warnings.

Across food categories, researchers found 25 different types of advisory term including ‘may contain’, ‘shared equipment’ and ‘within plant’. Additionally, they found that 65 percent of products listed non-specific terms, such as ‘natural flavors’ and spices’, and that 83 percent of those were not linked to any specific ingredients.

“Supermarket product labeling deficiencies and ambiguities are prevalent,” ​the researchers wrote. “Allergists must continue to educate their patients about these problems, which could be addressed by strict enforcement of labeling laws as well as additional regulation.”

Risk perception

They added that an earlier study had shown that consumers erroneously perceive different terms to indicate different levels of risk – for example, that ‘may contain’ indicates a higher risk than ‘shared facility’, although there is no such risk differentiation.

One specific issue outlined by the review was the labeling of soy products. Lecithin derived from soy must disclose soy on the ingredient label under the FALCPA legislation. More than half of the products labeled as containing soy only contained soy as soy lecithin which, the researchers argued, could be tolerated by some soy allergy sufferers since it contains only trace amounts of soy protein.

Related topics: R&D

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