Michelle Berriedale Johnson, editor of the allergy information website, FoodsMatter and director of the ‘FreeFrom Awards’ looks at the alarming rise in allergy, especially food allergy, and the industry that has grown up to serve food allergic people.
Fifty years ago you would have been puzzled and surprised if someone told you that their child had a peanut allergy. You would probably just about have heard of allergy – but peanut allergy? Yet today one in every 70 children has a peanut allergy.
And it is not just peanuts. Cow’s milk, eggs, coeliac disease, allergic asthma, hay fever. Where have all of these allergies and intolerances come from? And why are our children so much more vulnerable to them than our parents or grandparents?
Well, if we could answer that we would be a great deal further along the road to coping with them than we are! There are no definitive answers – but many theories:
- Thanks to intensive farming and monocultures the soil in which we grow our food is far lower in vitamins and minerals than it was 60 years ago so we are not getting the nutrients we need to keep us healthy.
- Heavy use of chemicals on our soils has left pesticide and other residues in the soil and the food grown in it.
- Heavily processed foods (of which we eat enormous amounts) are far lower in nutrients than fresh foods.
- Our approach to feeding children may have been all wrong. Recent research has shown that avoiding potential allergens such as peanuts in very young children’s diets can actually lead to allergy rather than avoiding it.
- Some people question the ever larger number of vaccines that we give to our children at ever earlier ages.
- The number of man-made chemicals in daily use (in personal and house cleaning alone) has grown thousand-fold but we do not know what effect many of them have on the body.
- Excessive use of antibiotics has seriously disrupted, if not destroyed, our gut bacteria. But healthy gut bacteria is now coming to be seen as essential for a healthy body.
- Wiping out all parasites from our guts (as we have over the last 50-60 years) may have disrupted the thousand-year-old balance between the parasites and our immune systems, leaving our immune system ‘under-employed’ and therefore liable to turn on themselves or on harmless foods or pollens.And many more…
But whatever about the reasons, what does having one of these conditions mean for your child and for the rest of the family? Let’s look at them one by one.
‘True’ or IgE mediated food allergy
This is when the immune system mistakes something totally harmless (such as a peanut) for a dangerous ‘invader’ and mobilises all of its forces to expel it from the body. This reaction can be so powerful that it can, in the worst case scenario, cause anaphylaxis: a condition in which the blood pressure plummets and, if adrenalin (epinephrine) is not administered very quickly, the person can die.
Cow’s milk, eggs and peanuts are the most common IgE mediated allergens among children although it is possible to have this sort of allergy to any food and to insect stings. Fortunately, most children will grow out of their egg allergy and the majority will grow out of their milk allergy; sadly peanut allergy is more persistent and is usually with them for life.
As of now there are no cures for ‘true’ allergy and although there have been a few exciting research studies done with peanut allergic children recently, they are still really only at the research stage.
So for now, the only treatment is total avoidance. And by total avoidance, I mean total avoidance. For someone with a true allergy, the tiniest smear of milk or speck of peanut dust could be enough to set off a serious reaction. A person with a true allergy should also always carry adrenaline ready to inject if they do have a reaction.
However, total avoidance is not easy. To achieve it you need to involve the whole immediate and extended family, especially if it is a small child. You have to become hyper-vigilant – and an obsessive reader of labels not just on food but on all products as traces of allergens can lurk in the most unlikely places. (Whey from milk in Ecover washing up liquid, for example.)
For more on how to deal with a newly diagnosed allergy see http://www.foodsmatter.com/allergy_intolerance/peanut_treenut/articles/introduction-to-peanut-allergy-03-16.html on our website.
Although food intolerance is not as serious as an IgE mediated allergy because it cannot kill you, it can make you extremely ill and is harder to diagnose as there really are no tests for food intolerance – apart from avoiding the food and seeing if you feel better!!
You or your child can be intolerant to a wide range of foods (including cow’s milk) and, as with food allergy, avoidance is the main management tool. How strict that avoidance needs to be will depend on the severity of the intolerance.
This is not an allergy but an autoimmune condition in which the lining of the intestine reacts to gluten. It can cause pain, diarrhoea and bloating and prevents nutrition being absorbed through the intestine; in babies and small children this causes a very obvious failure to thrive. It also causes anaemia and if undiagnosed, a wide range of conditions later in life, from osteoporosis to mental health problems. (For a more detailed introduction to coeliac disease visit http://www.foodsmatter.com/coeliac-disease/management/intro-coeliac-management-08-12.html
Yet again, the only ‘treatment’ is avoiding all gluten – very hard as it is to be found in barley, rye and wheat – the main ingredient in our most commonly eaten foods.
Hay fever and Oral Allergy syndrome
Hay fever is an allergic reaction to a pollen or a grass which has been inhaled so would not appear to be directly connected with food. However, because many plants and trees share proteins with many fruits and vegetables, a child (or adult) who is allergic to birch pollen, for example, may also be allergic to apples, apricots, cherries, carrots, celery, potatoes and tomatoes.
These kinds of food allergies are known as Oral Allergy Syndrome and will usually only cause itching in the mouth and throat. They should not be confused with ‘true’ allergies and can normally be dealt with by cooking the fruit or vegetables concerned.
The growth of FreeFrom Food
As the number of food allergics and coeliacs started to rise from 1990 onwards, more people found themselves having to cook for themselves as they could no longer buy normal foods that contained ingredients they weren’t able to eat. They experimented with different ingredients, came up with new recipes, fed them to their friends. And in due course, some of them realised that they were not the only ones having to avoid these foods and, helped by the growth of the internet, set up small businesses selling these ‘freefrom’ foods.
Gradually these businesses grew, and then the supermarkets got interested and began to develop ranges of their own. And so the ‘freefrom food’ industry was born.
We became involved because, back in the early years of the century, we ran small tasting sessions of the half dozen gluten-free pastas or dairy free milks then on the market, and reported on them in the FoodsMatter magazine, which pre-dated the FoodsMatter website. And then someone suggested that we should run FreeFrom Food Awards….
For the first two years we used the tastings that we had done for the magazine to choose the winners but it soon became clear that the number of products was growing fast and that we needed to find another format. So as from 2010 we moved on to one (now two) weeks of judging per year and started to take sponsors and charge companies to enter – and the awards took off!
The ever growing numbers of people who either had diagnosed allergies or coeliac disease, or who found that changing their diet to leave out, or at least cut down, on the amount of wheat and dairy they ate made them feel much better, have combined with the ever improving quality and range of the gluten and dairy free products to create a sort of virtuous circle.
Each year the products become more and more adventurous – and stocked in more places! Gradually, just being gluten free or dairy free has given way to being gluten free and dairy free (and sometimes egg free and nut free as well) and tasty and healthy! Gluten free wraps have started to appear in all high street coffee shops, dairy-free coconut milks, yogurts and ice creams are now on every supermarket shelf.
Special ranges have been developed for children such as this year’s children’s category winners, Perfect World’s Carrot Ice Cream Cake and Southern Fried Mini Chicken Fillets from the Tesco Free From range and the most unlikely products have appeared in a ‘freefrom’ format: 2015’s overall FreeFrom Food Awards’ winner was a gluten and dairy free pork pie and 2016’s was a gluten/wheat-free super healthy Weetabix lookalike! Please visit www.freefromfoodawards.co.uk so see last year’s winner.
So now here we are in 2018 with a ‘freefrom’ food industry worth over half a billion pounds and set to keep on growing!
All of which is certainly very good news for all those families living with allergies and coeliac disease! While not for a moment suggesting that living with either condition is easy, it is certainly a great deal easier than it was 20 or even ten years ago!