Study: Almost 8% of U.S. children have food allergies

It’s long been understood that, in the developed world, the number of children with food allergies has been increasing. Now a recent study confirms that in the U.S., approximately 8% of kids have food allergies — a total of more than 5.6 million children.

“Childhood food allergy is a serious issue in the U.S.,” said Dr. Ruchi S. Gupta, lead author behind the research study. “It impacts the health and wellbeing of children and their families in many ways, including socially, psychologically and economically.”

Researchers from Ann & Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago received survey responses from the homes of nearly 40,000 children between 2015 and 2016.

The responses didn’t form a complete story on their own. Parents reported allergy symptoms that weren’t quite indicative of real allergies. All in all, according to the survey, about 11% of children reportedly had a serious food allergy — not fitting with the previously known range of 6–8%.

Why the larger number of reported allergies? The researchers suggest that the answer could lie in a lack of access to proper physician diagnosis.

“This discrepancy underscores the importance of improving patient access to physicians trained in the accurate diagnosis of food allergy to prevent placing families under the social, emotional and economic burden of unnecessarily avoiding foods to which they are not truly allergic,” the researchers said, noting that food intolerances were sometimes interpreted as allergies by concerned moms and dads.

After combing through the data, the researchers found that about 4% of the food allergy symptoms reported in the surveys were inconsistent with typical symptoms, leading to a final figure of 7.6%.

Of that percentage, 40% were allergic to more than one food. In the survey, 20% of parents reported taking their food-allergic child for to the emergency room for allergic reactions within the past year (with 42% requiring emergency room visits within the child’s lifetime).

The most common food allergen in the U.S. is peanut, but other major allergens include milk, shellfish, tree nuts, eggs, fish, wheat and soy. These are the “Big Eight” allergens that must be labeled on food packaging thanks to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the research team, about 150,000 kids in the country are allergic to sesame, a “rising allergen” that the FDA is considering adding to its regulatory lineup, with an open comment session currently ongoing.

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