After much surveying by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), concrete support has been found for a theory that many scientists in the field have been hypothesizing for years: food allergies are rising at a seemingly unprecedented rate. Their prevalence among children has risen approximately 50 percent in the years between 1997 and 2011, and food allergies now affect around 15 million Americans. While these allergies can range in intensity and symptoms, they have nevertheless become part of the collegiate landscape, even extending to smaller scale institutions such as William Jewell College. Fresh Ideas and the cafeteria system are working on the front lines of this rise in student allergies. Meticulous labeling has popped up on the buffet lines to ensure students and faculty do not accidentally consume certain items. In addition, the existing request system continues, allowing diners to customize their meals in order to fit their specific dietary needs.
A definite answer is not currently available as to why there is such a surge of food allergies in the modern world. What scientists, doctors and nutritionists do know has nevertheless already begun to revolutionize the way people look at these illnesses and how to diagnose or further prevent agitating them. For instance, about 10 percent of allergy sufferers are unaffected by any of the “common allergens” and are instead provoked by other foods. The vast majority of allergies are triggered by eight specific ingredients: eggs, peanuts, milk, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. It is possible to have a negative reaction to more than one of these, as about a third of the 90 percent affected by the eight allergens do.
Not only that, but despite previously-held beliefs that allergies begin exclusively in childhood, they can appear at any time in one’s life, sometimes without warning. For instance, Amelia Hanzlick, senior, first discovered she had a gluten allergy in her junior year of high school when she visited France as part of a study abroad project.
“It took a long time to discover that I have gluten allergies,” Hanzlick said. “In the beginning it was difficult, but as time went on it was easier to handle. Sometimes it is more difficult to find satisfying options at restaurants or places I go with friends, but I have learned to find something wherever I go. [Fresh Ideas Chefs] Jen, Kiki and Rob are all very well versed in what is gluten free and what isn’t.”
On the other side of the spectrum, those diagnosed in childhood can sometimes find that their allergies wane as they age or disappear completely. Betsy Tucker, first-year, was once allergic to three out of the eight common triggers but is now only allergic to peanuts. While she once went into anaphylactic shock, an extreme reaction to allergens marked by reduced blood pressure and difficulty breathing, she now finds that she can easily avoid those foods to which her body does not react well. She acknowledges that her allergy is fairly manageable compared to what she has seen in some other people.
“Peanuts aren’t in everything like gluten, and my allergy is pretty mild,” said Tucker. “[They] aren’t standard recipes for most meals, and when they are, there’s always an alternative.”
Tucker believes that allergies stem from the emphasis on sterilization and sanitation in modern culture. Allergies are caused by oversensitive immune systems mistaking certain non-pathogens as dangers within the body and attacking them in the same way as they would a bacterium or virus. Those scientists, who support the “hygiene hypothesis,” believe that with more pathogens being removed by external forces like hand sanitizers and vaccinations, the immune system stops recognizing the difference between a threat and a common item and as such begins to turn on its own energy sources. While the hygiene hypothesis has yet to be proven, there are many pieces of evidence that support it, such as the relative lack of food allergies in non-Western countries.
However, contesting theories place the blame upon other factors. The GMO debate questions whether increased use of genetic modification leads to an increase in allergies. Evidence often cited for this argument is the fact that one of the most commonly modified plants, wheat, is also among the most common allergens. Not enough studies have been completed to prove that GMOs have negative effects on the human body. Other speculations include changes in manufacturing and increased awareness of the issue.
Regardless of which theory eventually prevails, preparations are already being made for members of the next generation, who will serve as the testing ground to see if such an increase can repeat itself. Parents are now recommended to expose their children to as many potential allergens as possible even within the womb, for instance, in order to see if desensitization can solve the problem. Food items are being made with heightened precision and stringency to avoid contact with allergens and to combat cross-contamination. No matter what the means may be, the world is becoming increasingly aware of food allergies.