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Why Are Food Allergy Cases Rising?

There has been increased focus on food allergies in recent years as research continues on allergic reactions, cross-contamination along the supply chain, and food fraud. Alongside this, legislation such as Natasha’s Law and the Food Information Regulations require companies to have a greater understanding of allergies than ever before. 

It’s essential for regulatory bodies and food businesses to continue introducing safeguards for allergen sufferers as there has been a startling rise in cases since the 1990s; in the US, for example, food allergy-related hospital admissions tripled from 1993 to 2006, while England has seen food-induced anaphylaxis cases triple in 20 years. As a result, there’s more pressure than ever for food businesses to make consumers aware of potential allergens in their products. 

The figures make it clear that there is a definite rise in food allergy cases, though many different theories are circulating as to why this may be. In this article, we’ve researched some of the most prevalent ideas from the medical and scientific community to shed some light on this situation.

What Causes Food Allergies?

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Before looking at potential reasons for these increases, it’s important to understand how food allergies actually occur. Put simply; allergic reactions occur due to immune system responses. The immune system mistakenly identifies a protein in a specific food as a foreign substance harmful to the body, classified as an antigen. This results in the release of an antibody, which is a protein that protects the immune system from antigens.  

The antibody, known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE), binds onto what’s known as a mast cell, which triggers the release of a chemical known as histamine that causes typical allergic reactions such as a runny nose, nausea or sneezing, to name a few. A more in-depth explanation can be found in our article detailing the history of allergies.

Is the Hygiene Hypothesis True?

One of the more popular yet controversial theories for an increase in cases is known as the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, referring to the belief that exposing children to bacteria at a young age can help strengthen their immune system to avoid allergies in the future. 

Supporters of this hypothesis believe that our increasingly urbanised, sterile environments reduce the chances of exposure to microorganisms and leave our bodies more likely to misidentify food proteins as harmful substances.

While many reputable organisations, such as the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team and the FDA in the US mention the hygiene hypothesis as a potential explanation, a quick look at medical journals shows that some members of the medical community are still sceptical

Sally Bloomfield, chair of the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene, states that the hypothesis is a dangerous misnomer which is misleading people away from finding the true causes of these rises in allergic disease and that it’s crucial to maintain high levels of personal hygiene to avoid other health issues. Despite its popularity, the validity of this hypothesis seems inconclusive as of the time of writing (July 2023).

Could Increased Vitamin D Levels Reduce Allergies?

It has been noted by the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology that while allergy cases have been rising, Vitamin D levels have been decreasing, which is a trend that could be a result of increased working from home, which has been normalised in recent years, following the Pandemic. As a result, linking Vitamin D deficiency to food allergy increase may seem like an obvious conclusion based on these societal trends and Vitamin D being known to help strengthen the immune system. 

Some studies suggest there may be a link between vitamin D levels and a risk of developing food allergies. However, there has also been conflicting information received from research, such as noting that low exposure to sunlight may increase food allergy risks, yet high exposure to vitamin D may have the same results. 

Despite inconclusive results, many studies do not outright dismiss the possibility of vitamin D levels influencing allergy risks, instead highlighting the need for further research to gain a better understanding of this area of study.

Can a Mother’s Diet Affect Their Child’s Risk of Developing Allergies?

In recent years, the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI) has noticed a link between a mother’s diet during pregnancy and the child’s risk of developing allergies. Their studies noted that for mothers with poor diet diversity and a history of allergies, 33% of their children would develop food allergies or Eczema by the age of 2. 

Interestingly, the study also explored that the method of childbirth may influence allergy risks, with children born due to a C-section having greater risk when compared to children that had a vaginal birth. 

The same study also aimed to find the effect of breastfeeding on allergy development, with both exclusive and supplemental breastfeeding leading to reduced risks of developing food allergies. 

Why Is The Rise of Allergens Important for Food Businesses?

It’s never been more important for food businesses, across hospitality, manufacturing, retail and catering, to demonstrate their ultimate due diligence in allergen processes and to establish a culture of care and excellence in food safety. This is one of the many reasons we developed the LiberEat Allergen Detection Software for food businesses, and it’s our mission to make food safer for everyone.

While the exact reasons for the rise in food allergy cases aren’t conclusive, as you can see from the various studies we examined, it’s important for businesses to take note of the growing importance of food allergen safety. Recent years have seen new legislation in the form of Natasha’s Law introducing new allergen labelling requirements, reflecting the public’s growing desire for greater transparency for food allergen information in products. 

For example, businesses in the UK are required to label the 14 major allergens, also known as the 14 main allergens if present in their products. PPDS foods, which are ‘pre-packed for direct sale’, refer to food packaged in the same place it is available for sale. These foods must have allergen information clearly highlighted on the packaging due to Natasha’s Law introducing stricter regulations.

Food packaged somewhere else before being available for sale has similar allergen declaration requirements, while the rules for Non-PPDS foods and foods sold via distance selling such as over the phone from a takeaway differ slightly. A more detailed overview of different allergen declaration requirements can be found in our Natasha’s Law article.

It’s safe to assume that we’ll see more legislation tackling food allergens in the future such as Owens Law, which was debated in parliament this May. Similarly, this year has seen the U.S. introduce Sesame as its ninth major allergen, with the potential for more to be introduced in the coming years. 

As more allergen-related legislation drives forward, businesses will be under increased scrutiny from regulatory bodies such as the Food Standards Agency and pressure from consumers. Failure to comply with allergen labelling requirements may result in financial or reputational damage, an improvement notice, or a criminal prosecution being brought against the food businesses or their owners. But overall, we know from speaking to Food Safety professionals that keeping consumers safe and happy is their number one priority. 

As a result, it’s of utmost importance to keep updated with any new legislation and ensure staff are aware of what’s expected of them. 

Unfortunately, businesses may find that allergens go undeclared in products due to processing errors. LiberEats Allergen Detection Software aims to reduce anxiety for business owners. Its robust technology identifies allergens present in products that may have been missed, minimising the risk of any incidents and subsequent legal or reputational consequences.

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Food allergen rules and regulations continue to change and evolve. Food businesses in production, hospitality, catering, and retail must be vigilant when working with ingredients, products, and dishes containing allergens and exercise due diligence when providing ingredient and allergen information to consumers. Successful allergen management is a big part of Food Safety professionals creating a culture of care and excellence within their teams.

LiberEat offers a second line of defence for food businesses by detecting errors, allergens, and other harmful ingredients with our proprietary Allergen Detection Software. Food businesses can apply this technology directly to identify errors in allergen communications, preventing the risk of injury to consumers. Contact us today to learn more about how we can support your existing food safety processes. 

LiberEat works closely with food businesses to ensure consumers are safe and healthy when consuming your produce.

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