Studies showed that peanut allergy in children increased from 0.5 to 1.5% between 1989 and 1994-6 in the UK and 0.6 % to 1.2 % between 1997 and 2002 in the USA. At the same time, in Australia, admissions to hospitals for food allergies increased significantly. As Australians became more concerned about food allergies, intolerances, and the effects of chemicals and food additives, demand for more information on packaging increased.
By 2019, it was estimated that about 7% of children in the UK and 9% of children in Australia suffered from food allergies. These rates are lower among the adult population. The most common foods leading to allergic reactions are egg, cow’s milk, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, soy, fish, shellfish, and wheat. Australia has the highest rate of confirmed allergies.
Allergic reactions to food occur when the body’s immune system begins to attack a substance that it should see as harmless. The result is usually itching, hives, swelling, wheezing or tightening of the throat, but severe reactions, called anaphylaxis, can cause death.
Scientists have yet to identify the causes of food allergies. It is apparent that they are more common in Western societies, so the assumption is that something in the Western lifestyle is at fault. Allergies are also more common in urban areas than in rural areas. Australia’s high degree of urbanisation may be one of the reasons allergies are more common here.
A link has been made to improved hygiene, reducing the infections children are exposed to. It seems that with fewer bacteria and parasites to fight, the immune system may turn against other proteins. Susceptibility to allergies has been linked to gut health, lack of Vitamin D, Caesarean births and lack of exposure to a range of foods during infancy.
There is currently no cure for food allergies, although desensitisation programs can be helpful. Sufferers must avoid the trigger foods and, if the allergy is severe, carry an adrenaline autoinjector to treat any unforeseen reaction.