Why Are Food Allergies on the Rise? with Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH
There’s been an uptick in childhood food allergies in recent years, and new evidence from Northwestern shows they’re also becoming more common in adults. Many of the reactions to these allergies are life-threatening. Why is this increase happening, and how can we keep people affected by food allergy safe? Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, is trying to answer those questions.
"We found that about half, 48 percent, said they developed at least one new food allergy as an adult that they didn't have as a child. Those numbers were a little astonishing. Additionally, about one in four adults said they developed an allergy is an adult and never had a food allergy as a child.”
- Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Academic General Pediatrics and Primary Care
- Professor of Medicine in the Division of Allergy and Immunology
- Attending physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago
Over the past decade, Ruchi Gupta and other scientists who study food allergies have published a great deal about the rise of childhood food allergies. The data was groundbreaking and has led to a greater understanding of food allergies, the risk of anaphylactic reaction and death and the importance of having epinephrine in schools as a life-saving tool. While awareness has increased around children with food allergies, there has been very little data on adults with food allergies. However, anecdotally, Gupta had heard about an increase in adult on-set food allergies. She decided to investigate the issue.
Ruchi Gupta: "Since we had the expertise in doing large-scale prevalence studies, we thought we would modify our pediatric study for adults and really understand how many people in the United States are affected by food allergy and what that looks like."
The study, based on a nationally representative survey of more than 40,000 adults, was published in JAMA Network Open. It found 10 percent of adults in the U.S. — over 26 million — are estimated to have food allergy. About half of those said they developed at least one new food allergy as an adult that they didn't have as a child.
Ruchi Gupta: "Those numbers were a little astonishing. Additionally, about one in four adults said they developed an allergy as an adult and never had a food allergy as a child. So that's a lot of adults developing new allergies."
Shellfish was the most common adult food allergy reported — nearly 3 percent of adults studied reported an allergy. Milk and peanuts were the second most common at around 2 percent each. There are many theories as to why food allergies are on the rise in both adults and children, but Gupta says there is no definitive answer.
Ruchi Gupta: "Chances are there is not one factor ... it's going to be a group of factors and how our lifestyles have changed. The one big breakthrough that's happened is there was a large study done in London called the LEAP Study, and they found that if you feed infants, high-risk infants, peanut products early in life, that you may be able to prevent peanut allergy. So that exposure through the gut early could be preventive. This was a really big breakthrough because for the first time we have a way to potentially prevent it."
Gupta's own daughter was diagnosed with food allergies and has inspired her to continue research and raising awareness about the issue. She created a series of videos for elementary-aged children to discourage bullying of children with food allergies and develop more peer understanding and peer support.
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Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, disclosed external professional relationships (speaking, advising, consulting, or providing educational programs) with Aimmune Therapeutics, Inc., UnitedHealth Group, Before Brands, Inc., DBV Technologies, Genentech, Pfizer, Stanford University, kaleo, Inc., Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), Allergy & Asthma Network (AANMA). Peer reviewer, Paul Greenberger, MD, disclosed external professional relationships (consulting) with Allergy Therapeutics. Course director, Robert Rosa, MD has nothing to disclose. Planning committee member, Erin Spain, has nothing to disclose. Feinberg School of Medicine's CME Leadership and Staff have nothing to disclose: Clara J. Schroedl, MD, Medical Director of CME, Sheryl Corey, Manager of CME, Jennifer Banys, Senior Program Administrator, Allison McCollum, Senior Program Coordinator, and Rhea Alexis Banks, Administrative Assistant 2.