Food Allergies Affect Nearly 6 Million U.S. Children, Study Suggests

Food allergies among U.S. children may be more common than previously thought.

According to a recent study, led by researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, about 8 percent of U.S. children could be afflicted with food allergies.

In what was possibly the largest study of its kind, parents of more than 38,000 children answered an online questionnaire about whether their child had been diagnosed with a food allergy and about the symptoms associated with it.

The survey found out that an estimated six million children in the U.S. could be suffering from food allergies.

Food allergies are different from food intolerance, a condition associated with digestion and metabolism and which does not involve immune system.

“Sometimes when people think of food [allergies], they think of rash or stomach ache. What I don’t think people understand is that it can be life-threatening,” said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, the lead author of the study.

Among children with food allergy, an alarming 38.7 percent had suffered severe reactions, and 30.4 percent had multiple food allergies, the report concluded.

The study also identified most common allergens. Affecting 25.2 percent of food-allergic children, peanuts top the list, followed by milk (21.1 percent) and shellfish (17.2 per cent). Other allergy-triggering substances include tree nuts, egg, fin fish, strawberry, wheat, and soy.

The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, has noted that Black and Asian children were more likely to have food allergies than white children.

A possible reason for this disparity, according to Gupta, may include the fact that children from minority or low-income households have less access to medical care, or perhaps because their parents might not be familiar with food allergies.

Beside health effects, food allergies among children can have serious social and psychological implications for a growing child.

“Children who are peanut allergic are relegated to the peanut-free table at school, which kind of makes them feel like outcasts,” WebMD quoted Susan Schuval, a pediatric allergist at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y., as saying. “Plus there’s a fear of having an allergic reaction after eating certain foods or going to a restaurant. It really can affect your whole life.”

According to Gupta, allergies are a particularly difficult chronic condition because kids can’t escape food in any part of their daily lives.

“They're going out with their friends and they don’t want to feel different. They may not ask the ingredients in everything, you know, at a restaurant, in front of people,” she said.

“This study shows that there’s a very high, and higher than we thought, prevalence of food allergy in the U.S.” says Schuval, who was not involved in the study.

“We see this in our clinic,” Schuval says, “tons and tons of food allergies,” WebMD reported.

“By understanding why some children are affected by food allergy while others are not, we can begin to better focus our efforts on finding a cure,” said Gupta.

The study was funded by Food Allergy Initiative (FAI), a non-profit advocacy group founded in 1998 by concerned parents and grandparents.