Why food allergies are on the rise


Food allergies can be extremely risky, even fatal – and they’re on the rise around the world. Why are they increasingly common, and what can we do to prevent them?





A food allergy can be a terrifying thing. When someone eats even a small amount of a food to which they are allergic, a minor reaction can involve itching, swelling, and stomach ache. But one in four people unlucky enough to have a food allergy, even a mild one, will at some point experience a severe reaction: anaphylaxis, a state of shock defined as a reaction involving two of the body's organs, is characterised by symptoms like wheezing, dizziness and vomiting. The pulse can slow, blood pressure can drop, and the airways can close. In an alarming number of people in the last few years, it has been fatal.

More of the population has food allergies than ever before – and around the world, they are sending more and more people to hospital. One large-scale review of hospital admissions data found anaphylaxis cases on the rise in the US, Australia and Europe, among other regions. In the US, hospital visits for food allergy increased threefold from 1993 to 2006. Between 2013 and 2019, England saw a 72% rise in the number of hospital admissions for children caused by anaphylaxis, from 1,015 admissions to 1,746.


Food allergies have risen is unquestionably the case


“That food allergies have risen is unquestionably the case, to an absolutely crazy extent,” says Graham Rook, emeritus professor of medical microbiology at University College London.


One theory behind the rise has been that we’re simply more aware of food allergies. But Kari Nadeau, a Stanford University allergy specialist who calls the rise an “epidemic” in her new book The End of Food Allergy, says this isn’t the case. “It's not just because we're getting better at diagnostics, because we're actually not,” she says. “We are becoming more aware of it, but that's not increasing the diagnosis.”


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