Are food allergies on the rise?

There has been a lot of speculation in recent months about an increase in food allergies and food intolerance, both in the scientific literature and in the media.

Last night (23 November) Campbell Live ran a story about coeliac disease (an intolerance to gluten), asking the question – how many people think they are gluten intolerant even though they have never been tested? This raised the issue of whether a gluten-free diet is a healthy choice, or an expensive and unnecessary fad.

Another recent news story asks whether food allergies are on the rise in children, and reports on a paper to be published in the journal Paediatrics in December 2009.

This follows on from a paper in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in October 2009 ‘Are food allergies on the rise or is it misdiagnosis’? This paper reports an 18% rise in food allergy among children in the United States from 1997 to 2007, but does put this into perspective, stating that overall only a small percentage of the population (4% to 8% of children and around 2% of adults) have diagnosed food allergies. This paper is available in the resource library of the Science Media Centre website and can be accessed by registered journalists.

The Science Media Centre recently asked Dr Vincent St Aubyn Crump, allergy expert from the Auckland Allergy Clinic and author of the newly published book Allergies, New Zealand’s Growing Epidemic, for his view on the allergy epidemic from a New Zealand perspective. In his view, allergies (including asthma, eczema, hay fever, food allergy and anaphylaxis) have increased in New Zealand and other developed countries, by epidemic proportions over the last 25 years.

Dr Vincent St Aubyn Crump comments that “20 years ago, I would probably have one child with peanut allergy referred to me every 6 months, but now I am seeing one new peanut allergy case each week”. A commentary by Dr Vincent St Aubyn Crump, The allergy epidemic: a look at the facts, is available in the Science Media Centre resource library.

It is, of course, important to obtain an accurate diagnosis of any food allergy or intolerance before making dietary changes, particularly where children are concerned, since they have high nutrient needs and unnecessary avoidance of foods could lead to nutritional deficiencies. A report on Adverse Reactions to Food by the British Nutrition Foundation in 2002 comments that as many as 20% of people may perceive themselves as intolerant or ‘allergic’ to a food, where as the true prevalence of food intolerance among children is no more than 5-8%, and among adults is around 2%.

Of course, for those with a true food allergy it is essential to obtain a proper diagnosis and to make appropriate dietary changes, since severe reactions to food can be fatal. If a food allergy is suspected, the avoidance of that food is recommended until medical advice can be obtained from a family doctor. A referral to an allergy specialist may be necessary.

To speak to an expert on food allergy, please contact the Science Media Centre on Tel: 04 499 5476, email: