Have food allergies increased over the last few decades?

Have you heard the phrase – “I don’t eat that, it doesn’t agree with me” and, “I avoid bread because I don’t feel great afterwards.”

Food allergies are certainly increasing, with over 2 million people in the UK having received a diagnosis of a food allergy, and this figure accounts for allergy sufferers who have sought a medical diagnosis for their reactions. There are many people who suffer milder reactions who are still waiting for a diagnosis, as well as people suffering from mild to severe reactions due to food intolerances.

It has become apparent that the range of allergens is increasing as reactions are not limited to the “Top 14” allergens. Common causes of allergic reactions include, but are not limited to, foods such as: Peaches, kiwifruit, bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, mushrooms, onions, and strawberries.

Pea protein, which is often a key ingredient in vegan products, has been identified as another allergen which is the cause of a noticeable increase in reactions. It is important to note that any food group could cause a reaction to someone, and that many allergy sufferers are reacting to multiple allergens, which can cause difficulties when planning meals and eating out in restaurants.

Our diets have changed significantly over the last 40 years. The range of products we have access to, such as exotic fruits and vegetables, is much wider than many years ago. Fruits such as pineapple and kiwifruits were not commonly available, and jackfruit has only recently appeared as a suitable alternative for vegan diets.

In previous decades, UK meal choices consisted of a lot of “standard” meat and two veg with popular meals including roast dinners, shepherd’s pie, cottage pie, and fish and chips. Today we can enjoy a range of “World Food” options such as Middle Eastern flatbreads, tagines, Indian curries, Spanish tapas, and spicy Mexican foods. We eat a wide variety of meals, dining out in restaurants much more frequently and ordering takeaways on a regular basis. In addition to this, our food preferences continue to evolve as we all consider the benefits of a plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian diet.

Our busy lifestyles lead to many of us choosing ready meals and pre-prepared options as they are much quicker, however many pre-packed options contain more preservatives, such as added salt, and don’t offer the same nutritional value.

We find advice changing all the time around allergens. Years ago, pregnant women were advised to avoid certain foods such as soft cheese, and peanuts, which resulted in the foetus not being exposed to these foods. The advice has now changed and encourages mothers to take small amounts of peanut butter in a bid to allow the growing baby to develop a tolerance for peanuts.

The medical profession is much more aware of allergies than previously, and progress has been made in testing and diagnosis. Steps are taken to try to re-introduce foods under strict medical supervision to allow the sufferer to begin to tolerate certain food groups. The lifesaving medication “Epinephrine” is the only medication that works for anaphylaxis.

The public are also better informed and can find information readily available to recognise the symptoms of allergic reactions. The allergy community will continue to share their experience and knowledge on social media, so anyone who believes they react to any food groups will be much better informed.

An increase in our knowledge and awareness of food allergies helps us to recognise symptoms which perhaps previously had been ignored or misdiagnosed. Research continues to look for a breakthrough to try and reduce the huge increase in food allergies and as medical science develops its understanding in this area, the current rise in food allergies may eventually start to slow down and reverse the trend.

Useful allergen links:

Jacqui McPeake, food allergen and catering specialist on behalf of Allergen Accreditation
Julian Edwards FIH FCSI CFSP, CEO of Allergen Accreditation

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Published on November 17th, 2021

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