The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), a nonprofit group dedicated to raising awareness of food allergies, conducted a telephone survey of 13,000 households (in which 5,000 participated) and determined that peanut allergies doubled in children between 1997 and 2002. But that’s not all. “Anecdotally,” says FAAN’s CEO and founder Anne Muñoz-Furlong, “we know from physicians and school nurses that other food allergies, and allergies in general, have increased as well.”
Identifying what’s responsible for the increased prevalence of allergies is difficult—but several theories abound. One is the so-called “hygiene hypothesis,” which posits that we’ve done such a good job eradicating diseases and sanitizing our environment that our immune systems are looking for something to do. Another theory is that we’re introducing potentially allergenic foods too early, or too late, into young children’s diets.
Could it be that we’re all exposed to more and more of the “Big Eight” allergens through processed foods and this might be contributing to the rising rates? “Possibly,” says Annie Khuntia, M.D., clinical associate of allergy and immunology at the University of Chicago. “But it’s really difficult to come to this conclusion because there isn’t any evidence to support it. This issue hasn’t been studied.” At this point, say experts, most hypotheses tend to be, well, educated guesses. “Even the big players tend to disagree,” says Khuntia. “It’s an evolving science.”