Australia Has One Of The Highest Food Allergy Rates In The World—What’s Going On?

Here's what you need to know.

food allergy
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When I was growing up, peanut butter was still allowed in school lunch boxes and soggy egg sandwiches were the norm. You knew what an EpiPen was but never really came across one and ‘anaphylaxis’ was just a word you couldn’t pronounce. Fast forward 20 or so years and it seems as though everywhere you turn, you know of a child (or adult) with a food allergy. Differing greatly to ‘a food intolerance’, a food allergy is a serious, life-threatening condition—and one that’s developing at a rapid rate. 

food allergy
Image: iStock

Why are food allergies so prominent nowadays?

Alarmingly, statistics show that 1 in 10 babies born in Australia today will develop a food allergy—and despite considerable research being carried out in this area, Maria Said, CEO of Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia, says there is little definitive knowledge as to why they are on the rise. In saying that, however, there are some possible theories outlined by The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) which include:

  • Hygiene hypothesis: Less exposure to infections during childhood
  • Changes to the gut microbiome
  • Lack of Vitamin D
  • The delayed introduction of foods that are common allergens such as eggs, peanuts and tree nuts
  • Changing methods of food processing, such as roasted peanuts versus boiled peanuts

“Genetic factors can also increase the likelihood of a child developing an allergy,” Said tells Amodrn. “If you or your partner has a food allergy your child has a 30 per cent increased risk of inheriting the gene. If both parents have allergies the risk can double.”

food allergy
Image: iStock

Which foods can cause allergies?

Said explains that when it comes to some of the most common food allergies in Australia, 90 per cent of reactions are caused by these top 10 allergens; cow’s milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, sesame, soy, shellfish, fish and lupin. In addition to this, there are over 170 foods known to cause anaphylaxis which include celery, mustard, chicken, kiwi fruit and banana. “What we are finding is an increase in kiwi fruit allergy is more common now than it was, say, 15 years ago,” says Said. 

Symptoms to look out for:

“Allergic reactions can range from mild to severe, with severe being named anaphylaxis,” explains Said. “Symptoms usually appear within two hours of a person eating a food they are allergic to.”
“Mild to moderate symptoms include swelling of the face, lips and eyes, hives/welts or abdominal pain/vomiting.” [Whereas] “symptoms of anaphylaxis include difficult/noisy breathing, swelling of the tongue, swelling/tightness in the throat, difficulty talking/hoarse voice, wheeze/persistent cough, persistent dizziness or collapse and young children are often described as becoming pale and floppy.”

food allergy
Image: iStock

What you can do as a parent:

“It is recommended parents introduce solid foods to their babies at around six months of age (not before four months),” advises Said. “The top 10 common allergens should be introduced by 12 months in an appropriate form, such as peanut butter paste. Giving these to your baby regularly (twice weekly) should help them maintain tolerance. If your baby has an allergic reaction, stop giving that food and seek medical advice.”
Throughout pregnancy, ASCIA recommends consuming a healthy balanced diet rich in fibre, vegetables and fruit. “No evidence exists that pregnant women should eliminate common allergy-causing foods i.e. peanuts to prevent allergic disease in their baby,” adds Said. “All foods should be eaten in moderation.”
Although food allergies are most common in children, Said tells Amodrn that it is possible to develop a food allergy at any time in your life. Further to this, even a tiny amount of a certain food can trigger an allergic reaction including anaphylaxis—two of the biggest myths often misunderstood.
For more information on food allergies, visit www.foodallergyaware.com.au.

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