Kansas State University nutrition specialist Sandy Procter says that while the number of severe cases related to food allergens are on the rise, researchers continue looking for ways to prevent future allergic reactions.
Speaking recently on the K-State Research and Extension radio program, Sound Living, Procter said many food allergies today go well beyond three of the most common culprits of the past — seafood, milk and nuts.
“We know now that it is a wider band of foods that are causing allergic reactions,” she said. “Those three have not gone away, but we’re seeing reactions to other foods, as well.”
Eggs, sesame, wheat and some fruits and vegetables are among many more foods that dietitians, nutritionists and others now list as potential allergens. Procter, who at one time in her career wrote menus for childcare lunch programs, said “we were very careful to note foods that contained (suspected allergens) and let people know.”
“We knew that if there were children in the care center with known allergies, those foods were very quick to be removed from the menu. Some of these food reactions are not caused just by contact or ingestion, but can be transmitted through the air.”
School food service personnel, she added, receive training so that they are implementing practices that protect children with food allergies. The U.S. government requires that food labels contain information on ingredients most often suspected of causing allergic reactions, such as tree nuts and more.
“Some foods can be really deceptive in terms of the ingredients contained in them,” Procter said. “It is really important that those top allergen foods appear on the label to help families and individuals.”
Procter said recent research is helping to reduce some risks. One in particular — called the LEAP study — involved clinical trials to determine the best strategy to prevent a peanut allergy in young children.
“For years, there has been real concern about peanut allergies and it’s something that has gone from one extreme to the other,” Procter said. “In the past, we thought if these children have a likelihood to have an allergy to peanuts, maybe the mother should avoid eating peanuts during pregnancy, or maybe peanuts shouldn’t be introduced to a child at all.”
The LEAP study, she added, changed that way of thinking.
“The study determined an 8o% reduction in peanut allergy for five year old children who regularly ate peanuts since the year they were born,” Procter said.
It’s thought that babies may have the capacity to expand what their body tolerates as they move from a milk-based diet to solid foods. “This is a strategic time for that capacity to grow,” Procter said.
“What they’ve introduced is a very dilute peanut source mixed in to regular food that is an appropriate texture for that baby,” Procter said, such as powdered peanut butter mixed in with baby food.
“The study has gained credibility,” she said. “It has led to experts in the United States reversing their recommendation of holding off on the introduction of peanuts, to now saying it is probably okay — with care and discussion with your health care provider — to introduce peanuts to kids who don’t have a family history of peanut allergies, rather than putting it off until later.”
Procter emphasized the importance of consulting with a medical professional before implementing results of this or any other studies related to food allergies.
“It is comforting for families, caregivers and the public to know that researchers are now starting to determine they have some understanding of the noted increases in food allergies, as well as ways that more people suffering may either be able to prevent allergies or deal with them safely,” she said.
More information about food allergies is available online from Food Allergy Research and Education.
More information about health and nutrition is available from local extension offices in Kansas, as well as from K-State’s Department of Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health.