A Growing Epidemic: Food Allergies in America

A Growing Epidemic: Food Allergies in America
12/5/2018
 
Courtesy of Robyn O’Brien
 
Many companies, big multinationals and small startups, are asking about food allergies.
 
It is no longer a closet condition that mothers bow their heads over.  It is impacting a growing number of Americans.

The number of people with the peanut allergy in the United States more than quadrupled between 1997 and 2010.
 
EpiPen, the life-saving device manufactured by Mylan, has grown from a $200 million product in 2007 to a $1 billion brand today. Its monopoly is so strong that even in the face of a manufacturing shortage, many stand helpless on the sidelines and the media remains silent.
 
A life-threatening food allergic reaction sends someone to the emergency room once every three minutes in the United States.
 
Twelve years ago, that person was me, as our fourth child suffered her first reaction.
 
In the twelve years since, I have held the hands of parents that have lost their children to these allergic reactions and shared far too many of their stories.
 
Food should not kill our children.
 
And too much of the data that is often shared is old. “Food allergies cause 150-200 deaths per year,” we often read.  But the truth is that the Centers for Disease Control actually do not keep track of the number of deaths by food allergic reaction. And in many cases, when the cause of death is listed, it often has to do with what has occurred during those reactions, the loss of oxygen and inability to breath, like Emily’s Story, which we have shared countless times and will continue to because of the number of lives that it has already saved.
 
Food allergies are not a niche, it is a growing epidemic that is challenging how we think about our food and how it is made. Genetic factors don’t change this quickly, environmental factors do. Are we allergic to food or to what’s been done to it?
 
Researchers reporting in the Journal of the American Medical Association states that the costs of food allergies, from medical care to food to pharmaceuticals is $4,184 per child per year, costing our economy $25 billion, including lost productivity.
 
To discount this condition in any way is irresponsible, but it is just one of the conditions that is triggering a food awakening around the country.

In the United States, we are quickly learning that our food supply contains a lot of ingredients that simply did not exist when we were kids, and that our own American corporations don’t use these ingredients in the products they sell overseas.
 
As a result of this growing awareness of what has been done to our food, 21st century consumers are looking for “free from” food: food that is free from ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, GMOs and artificial ingredients. Why? Because we are dealing with conditions and diseases in our families like never before. It is driving a food awakening. We are not saying that correlation is causation, we simply want food companies to dump the junk and the artificial ingredients from their products.
 
In the last few years, Target, Chipotle, Panera, Kroger, even General Mills and Cheerios have responded to this growing demand in the marketplace. In the last few months, Pepsi, Tyson and others have responded, too.
 
In the United States, we have allowed our cows to be fed genetically engineered corn, removed the ability to label beef as “grass-fed” and allowed an artificial growth hormone to be inserted into our dairy cows that no other developed country in the world allowed?  So if a child has a milk allergy, it is difficult to know if they are allergic to organic milk, conventional milk, milk full of the antibiotics and pus that turned other countries off of the artificial growth hormone in the first place?  It’s hard to know.  That level of allergy testing does not exist.
 
But consumers are on the front lines.
 
They see the escalating rates of diseases, they feel the financial impact with their own health care costs, and they hear consumers that are saying they want to eat fewer fake, artificial and genetically engineered ingredients. While the chemical companies selling these new ingredients say there is no evidence of harm, consumers are saying: there is no evidence since these ingredients were never labeled in the United States. There are also no long term studies to show us that they are safe.
 
The potential of genetically engineered foods to cause allergic reactions is a big reason for opposition to these crops. It is also one of the concerns that led 64 countries around the world to label these foods for their citizens while over 30 countries banned them entirely.
 
Introduced into the US food supply in the mid 1990s without labels, there were protocols put in place to ask questions about the allergy-causing possibilities, but there has been no test that offers definitive answers.
 
In other words, if you walked into an allergist’s office and asked if you were allergic to corn that has been in the food supply for thousands of years or if you are allergic to a new corn product, genetically engineered to produce its own insecticide and introduced into our food and now regulated by the EPA as a pesticide, there would be no test to give you that answer.
 
With no labels on these ingredients in the US to trace their impact and no test to offer definitive answers, the biotech industry is able to claim that there is not a single documented case of these foods ever causing harm. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
 
But with the widespread introduction of genetically engineered ingredients into the US food supply, a frequently asked question is: Are rates of allergies higher in the United States than they are in other countries?
 
Previously, it was anyone’s guess.
 
But a study released in the Journal of the American Medical Association, says yes, living in the United States increases your risk of allergic diseases……“significantly.”
 
“Living in the US raises risk of allergies,” say recent headlines.  Life-threatening allergic reactions to foods have increased by five times over the last decade in the U.S., according to a new analysis of private insurance claims by FAIR Health, an independent nonprofit that collects and analyzes data on privately billed health insurance claims.
 
According to the research, living in the United States for a decade or more may raise the risk of some allergies, reports the Journal of the American Medical Association.
 
“These data indicate that duration of residence in the United States is a previously unrecognized factor in the epidemiology of atopic disease,” it said.
 
In other words, the longer you live here, the more likely you are to develop some kind of allergy, asthma, eczema or other related condition.
 
Food allergies have been skyrocketing in the United States in the last fifteen years. Not only has the CDC reported a 265% increase in the rates of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions in a ten-year period, but the sales of EpiPens, a life-saving medical device for those with food allergies, has also seen record sales growth according to the New York Times.
 
So what’s going on?
 
The study aimed to find out. Allergies reported in the survey included asthma, eczema, hay fever, and food allergies.
 
“Children born outside the United States had significantly lower prevalence of any allergic diseases (20.3%) than those born in the United States (34.5%),” said the study led by Jonathan Silverberg of St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York.
 
Let’s restate that:
Children born in the US have more than a 1 in 3 chance of having allergic diseases like food allergies, asthma or eczema, while kids born in other countries around the world had a “significantly lower prevalence” of 1 in 5.
 
On top of that, “foreign-born Americans develop increased risk for allergic disease with prolonged residence in the United States,” it said.
 
In other words, if you move here, your chances of developing any one or more of these allergic diseases increase.
 
The study went so far as to say that children born outside of the US who moved here showed “significantly” higher odds of developing these diseases.
 
What’s driving this? Is it really Purel and intense handwashing? And the hygiene hypothesis?
 
And are we allergic to food? Or what’s been done to it?
 
Because genetics don’t change that quickly, and the environment does.
 
“These data indicate that duration of residence in the United States is a previously unrecognized factor in the epidemiology of atopic disease,” it said.
 
This presents a risk not only to these children, but also to our economy, as the financial burden of these conditions and their associated health care costs impact not only families but also our country, our military and our productivity.
 
So what is triggering this escalating, US allergy epidemic?
 
According to Reuters report on the study and Dr. Ruchi Gupta, who studies allergies at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago but wasn’t involved in the new research, “This is definitely something we see clinically and we’re trying to better understand, what is it in our environment that’s increasing the risk of allergic disease?” said
“Food allergies have increased tremendously,” she told Reuters Health. “We do see people who come from other countries don’t tend to have it.”
 
As discussed in a previous column, allergic reactions occur you’re your body perceives something to be a threat. They can also be a symptom of a hypersensitive immune system – our bodies armed and ready to launch an attack againstany perceived threat.
 
A growing number of doctors are also suggesting that food allergies might be a symptom that something is wrong with our food system. In other words, in light of the sudden explosion in food allergies: are we suddenly allergic to food? Or what’s been done to it?
 
Someone with food allergies has an immune system that perceives a food protein to be “foreign”, unidentifiable. And it launches an inflammatory response to drive out that foreign invader.
 
Today, we have new, foreign proteins that have never existed in our food supply that have been genetically engineered into our food. These proteins are so new that they have been patented by the United States Patent and Trademark Office and never before existed up until their introduction in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
 
Now correlation is not causation, but the concern over the unknown health impacts of these new proteins in the food supply is in part what led 64 countries around the world to label genetically engineered foods when they were first introduced fifteen years ago and 27 countries to flat out ban them.
 
According to Science Daily:
Genetically engineered crops are created by inserting a protein from a different organism into the original crop’s genome. This is usually done to create a plant that is more resistant to insects or diseases.
 
The Food and Agriculture Organization within the World Health Organization has a structured approach to determining whether genetically engineered foods cause allergies, according to Venu Gangur, MSU assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, who also is a faculty member in the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center. “But it has a major flaw. A critical question in that process asks, ‘Does the protein cause an allergic reaction in animals?’ The problem is that there has been no good animal model available to test this.”
 
It’s food for thought.
 
We don’t have labels on these genetically engineered foods in the US, at least not yet. Bipartisan legislation was recently introduced, and efforts have been made to urge the FDA to take action so that American consumers can enjoy the same freedoms enjoyed by consumers in over 60 countries around the world (including all of the member states of the European Union, Australia, Japan, the UK, Russia, China and India) and have access to whether or not their food and the foods they are feeding their families contain these genetically engineered ingredients.
 
Do we really want out slogan to be: Come to America, but don’t forget your asthma enhalers and EpiPens? We could quickly earn the title of the United States of Allergic Disease.
 
We are so much more than that.
 
Since genetically engineered ingredients are not yet labeled here in the United States. look for “Non-GMO” or “USDA Organic” foods which by law are not allowed to be produced with these new proteins. Chipotle took a bold move and announced that they are dropping these ingredients altogether.
 
With conflicting positions in the science, these ingredients need to be labeled. A food allergic reaction sends someone to the emergency room in the United States once every three minutes. European law dictates that any food containing more than 0.9% genetically engineered ingredients be labeled as containing GMOs. It’s a freedom to choose. Clean food is a right that should be afforded to all Americans, not just those who can afford to opt out and purchase foods labeled “non-GMO” or “USDA Organic”.
 
Mounting scientific evidence points to the role that our increasingly re-engineered food supply, hopped up on additives, artificial dyes, artificial growth hormones, record amounts of pesticides now recognized by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen and genetically engineered ingredients hardwired to be sprayed with them is having on the health of our families. The growing number of American dealing with food allergies and food sensitivities is an alarm bell that our bodies can no longer tolerate what has been done to our food.
 
The cost of food allergies is burdening more than just the families dealing with them, it’s burdening our schools, our health care system and our economy.
 
Food allergies are not a “niche,” just as cancer is not a fad.
 
It’s time to clean up our food, to get the junk out. Chipotle recognizes this and is responding to the needs of 21st century families. Given that the company formerly known as Kraft recognizes this same demographic with its recent acquisition, it’s time that others do, too.
 
21st century consumers are looking for food that is free from artificial ingredients and allergens. The companies that recognize this are seeing their market share and earnings grow.
 
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