As food allergies rise, researchers dig deeper

A group of medical researchers are taking a new approach to examining food allergy patterns in the United States.

Instead of using traditional methods to learn about people with food allergies, the team has undertaken the monumental task of analyzing the medical records of a whopping 2.7 million patients.

“Recent reports suggest that food allergies are on the rise, with more food allergy-related hospitalizations in the U.S. over the last decade,” said Li Zhou, an investigator from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston. “However, many studies have been based on telephone surveys or have focused on a specific food allergen or allergen group.”

From its mountain of data, the team identified more than 97,000 patients with a documented food allergy or intolerance. From there, they began to examine some of common traits of affected patients.

“We recognized that the electronic health record system could offer a treasure trove of information about allergies to better understand which populations may be most affected, and just how common food allergies and intolerances are in the U.S.,” Zhou said.

What was the most commonly reported food allergy?

The U.S. Food Allergen Labeling Act identifies the “big 8” food allergens, which comprise 90% of food allergies in the country: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. Of those, researchers from BWH found that shellfish was the most commonly reported food allergy.

Shellfish is included in allergen legislation in many other countries as well, including throughout the European Union, Canada and Australia. The European Union actually includes 14 items on its allergen regulatory lists: eggs, milk, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, gluten, soy, celery, mustard, lupine and sulphites.

How many are affected, and who are they?

Food allergies or intolerances were documented for 3.6% of the populated studied, a number consistent with previous estimates based on oral food challenges. The largest demographics affected are reported to be females and people of Asian ethnicities.

And though food allergies are quite common, the team says that there are fewer than 7,000 allergists and immunologists in the country, suggesting difficulties in evaluating the extent of allergies for every patient who ever receives positive results from initial tests.

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