By Chelsea May, Martec Project Manager
After investigating food fraud in the honey market, the second episode of Rotten dives into food allergies. Food allergies are not a new thing, but we are now seeing an increase in cases like never before, especially in children. Around 8% of children in the US have a food allergy. This might not seem high, but over the last decade there has been a 50% increase in the number of children with a food allergy! So why are these allergies becoming so common? The answer is not exactly concrete… our bodies are starting to reject the food we eat, and scientists haven’t figured out why.
There are 8 common allergens, of those, peanut allergies are the most prevalent. It’s easy to imagine how difficult life for anyone with a peanut allergy would be, but “it’s the hardest for kids, kids with peanut allergies are experiencing severe reactions more often, because peanuts and peanut products are everywhere.” (Gesing & Kerr, 2018) With how common peanut products are, more than half of kids with a peanut allergy have experienced a life-threatening attack. Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, a pediatrician specializing in allergies, talked about what happens to the body during an allergic reaction: “The body sees the food or allergen as an attacker, so the body is trying to eject the invader. The worst kind of allergic reaction is anaphylactic shock. The patient will experience vomiting, no breathing, drop in blood pressure, and bronchospasms.” The worst part? Every time a person has a reaction, it will be worse than the one before.
Unseen impact of food allergies
Although the impact of food allergies on the consumer is obvious, a byproduct of this increase in allergies is found among those who produce or supply the food, too. Those affected include people like Casey Cox, a peanut farmer in Georgia. Farmer’s reputations are transforming, and they are in trouble of becoming extinct. They worry about the future of their farm as demand for peanuts depletes. As Casey put it, “The last thing you want is for someone to be afraid of what you produce. I hope continued science and research will prevent an all-out ban of peanuts. It’s our livelihood.”
The Martec Group’s research has extensively explored the importance of transparency in food, and with this growth of life-threatening allergens, we expect a strong demand for increased transparency. Clearly, transparency isn’t just about preference anymore; it has become a matter of life or death. In 2016, the first-ever prosecution of a restaurateur in a food allergy case went to trial in the UK. The restaurant owner, Mohammed Zaman, was charged with gross negligence manslaughter when customer Paul Wilson died from a severe anaphylactic shock after eating a spoonful of curry, allegedly ‘peanut free’, from Zaman’s restaurant. The sauce from his meal was found to be 19% peanut based, a teaspoon alone would have been lethal. Investigators found evidence that Zaman, struggling with severe debt, made the change from almond based cooking products to peanut based. Even when warned from his supplier about the severe allergen issue, Zaman neglected to update his menu or staff about the change. Although this was the first case of a restaurateur being charged, half of all food allergy deaths occur because of restaurants or food service. Some restaurants understand the severity of transparency, such as Ming Tsai, owner of Blue Ginger, who says “I can’t think of a more fundamental piece of a restaurant than supplying clean water and healthy food to eat. If you don’t know what you’re serving or what’s in the food, then get out of the business.”
But still, the ‘why’ behind these allergic reactions, and growing occurrence of reactions, is not understood by doctors. Some believe it could be a result of our environment and modern medicine. Ruslan Medzhitov, PhD Sterling Professor of Immunobiology at Yale stated: “Infants are getting antibiotics earlier than ever before, so humans are going into a cleaner state. Less interaction with the microbiome…it’s hard to pinpoint what piece they [allergens] are coming from. Also, the food we grow and eat is different. Foods are more eatable [sic] now, but there is a further reduction in non-nutrient substances in food that we need exposure to.” This limited exposure to microbes is thought to be a probable cause as to why we have been developing these allergies.
How do we combat the rise of food allergies?
Until 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommended parents avoid exposing their children to allergen products, like peanuts, until they were three years old. It was in 2008 researchers noticed a very low number of peanut allergies in Israel. This was due to early childhood exposure of peanut products, in the form of the most popular Israeli snack food, Bamba. This discovery led the AAP to change their guidelines to encourage parents to introduce allergen foods in small amounts, so children’s immune systems recognize the food products. In March 2019, the AAP released a new guideline even furthering the exposure need. “There is now evidence that the early introduction of infant-safe forms of peanuts reduces the risk for peanut allergies.” (Greer, Sicherer, & Burks, 2019) The recommendation now is to introduce peanuts to children as early as three to four months old. These exposure techniques are obviously not a cure, but Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH is hopeful that in the next 5-10 years there will be more treatments in the market.
Nowadays, we all know someone who has a food allergy. My cousin’s son had a severe nut allergy that impacted his life. He went through exposure therapy and now can eat anything cross-contaminated with nuts. Medical advancements like this are encouraging for allergy sufferers and those with a vested interest in the peanut industry itself, like Casey Cox. The good news is, in the next 5 years, we expect to see a boom in demand for peanuts and peanut products as they become more accessible.
Martec will stay up-to-date on the demand for peanuts and other allergen products over the years to come as more medical advancements are introduced. With our close following of trends in the food & beverage industry, we know that consumers see transparency as important – especially in the case of allergy sufferers. Next in this series, we’ll explore how transparency can get a little foggy in global markets.
Greer, F. R., Sicherer, S. H., & Burks, A. W. (2019). The Effects of Early Nutritional Interventions on the Development of Atopic Disease in Infants and Children: The Role of Maternal Dietary Restriction, Breastfeeding, Hydrolyzed Formulas, and Timing of Introduction of Allergenic Complementary Foods. American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report, 143(4).
Gesing, T. (Director), & Kerr, B. (Writer). (2018, January 5). The Peanut Problem [Television series episode]. In Rotten. Netflix.