The prevalence of food allergies and intolerances is steadily increasing. Testing laboratories and the natural products industry can help.
The prevalence of food allergies and intolerances is on an alarming upward trajectory. It has become an epidemic, with one in 10 adults and one in 13 children totaling 32 million Americans having food allergies, according to FARE. “Each year in the U.S., 200,000 people require emergency medical care for allergic reactions to food,” FARE continued. As a result, quality of life for many individuals is impacted, especially if their reactions to certain foods are serious and cause life-threatening anaphylaxis. In this case, the only effective treatment is the drug epinephrine.
A study published in 2019 on the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health website, titled “Prevalence and Severity of Food Allergies Among U.S. Adults,” found that “In a population-based survey of 40,443 U.S. adults, an estimated 10.8 [percent] were food allergic at the time of the survey, whereas nearly 19 [percent] of adults believed that they were food allergic. Nearly half of food-allergic adults had at least [one] adult-onset food allergy, and 38 [percent] reported at least [one] food allergy-related emergency department visit in their lifetime.” As a result, “The findings suggest that food allergies are common and severe among U.S. adults, often starting in adulthood.” They also concluded that “it is crucial that adults with suspected food allergy receive appropriate confirmatory testing and counseling to ensure food is not unnecessarily avoided and quality of life is not unduly impaired.”
The nine most common allergens, as listed on www.foodallergyawareness.org, are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat and sesame. The most common symptoms of an allergic reaction to food, according to Mayo Clinic, are tingling or itching in the mouth; hives, itching or eczema; swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat or other parts of the body; wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing; abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting; and dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting. The symptoms of a severe allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis, includes constriction and tightening of the airways; a swollen throat or the sensation of a lump in your throat that makes it difficult to breathe; shock with a severe drop in blood pressure; rapid pulse; and dizziness, lightheadedness or loss of consciousness. Left untreated, anaphylaxis can cause coma or death.
Clearly, food allergies are prevalent, serious, can impact quality of life, and can be life-threatening if not addressed by a medical professional. Often, however, according to Mayo Clinic, food intolerances are mistaken for food allergies, as symptoms can appear similar. “A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body … In some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe or life-threatening. In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems.” Those with food intolerances “may be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without trouble.” Even if symptoms after eating certain foods are mild, however, a doctor should still be seen to rule out the possibility of a food allergy.
Chad Larson, NMD, DC, CCN, CSCS, advisor and consultant on the Clinical Consulting Team at Cyrex Laboratories (Phoenix, AZ), further explained the differences among food intolerances, food sensitivity and food allergy. “The word ‘intolerance’ refers to an enzyme deficiency condition. For example, in lactose intolerance, there is a deficiency in the enzyme lactase—it is not an immune-mediate problem,” he stated. “When it comes to food immune reactions, a condition is referred to as food ‘sensitivity,’ which is typically mediated by immunoglobin G (IgG) or IgA. The most common foods in this category are wheat/gluten, dairy/casein and eggs.” Lastly, “a food ‘allergy’ is referring to a specific type of immune reaction mediated by IgE.”
Jasmyne Brown, ND, MS, Great Plains Laboratory, Lenexa, KS, stated that “Intestinal permeability, immune activation from chronic bacterial or fungal overgrowth, and toxin exposure are common causes of food intolerances.”
As the prevalence of both food allergies and food intolerances rises, it is crucial to study the reasons behind this upward trend.
The Rise in Food Allergies and Intolerances
According to www.foodallergyawareness.org, “The greatest rise in the prevalence of food allergies is in the U.S. and other industrialized countries around the world. The number of people with food allergy in America has doubled each of the last decades.” Although reasons for the sharp increase in prevalence are not completely understood, the article stated that “With the rapid rise of food allergies over the past generation, experts believe that increases in allergy susceptibility are being driven, in part, by environmental factors.”
There are other factors being considered by researchers as well, according to www.news-medical.net. “One theory is that parents are avoiding introducing their children to potentially allergenic foods, meaning that children react abnormally to the allergens once they do encounter them,” the article, titled “What’s Driving the Recent Rise in Food Allergens?” by Sally Robertson, BSc stated. She continued, “This was the basis of a study led by Gideon Lack from King’s College London called the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study,” which “showed that among children who avoided eating peanuts, 17 [percent] developed a peanut allergy by the time they were age , whereas only [3 percent] who had peanut introduced into their diet from the year they were born developed the allergy by age 5 … The theory is that eating allergenic foods during the weaning period effectively ‘trains’ the gut’s immune system to tolerate bacteria and foreign substances such as new foods.”
Another theory, Robertson continued, is called the hygiene hypothesis, which “posits that a lack of exposure to microorganisms during early childhood affects the gut microbiome … and causes the immune system to identify food proteins as infectious agents mistakenly. Parasitic infections, in particular, are usually combated by the same immune mechanisms that are used to tackle allergy.” She continued, “The hygiene hypothesis postulates that excess hygiene or antibiotic use practiced as part of modern life has limited exposure to a wide range of bacteria that have evolved alongside humans. This exposure helps the body develop a well-regulated immune system that does not react abnormally to harmless allergens and treat them as a threat.”
The third and final theory that Robertson shared is the vitamin D hypothesis. “Researchers have started to notice that food allergy prevalence seems to coincide with the availability of sunlight,” she stated. “Australian researchers Katie Allen and Carlos Camargo conducted studies showing that a lack of exposure to sunlight, which can lead to vitamin D deficiency, can increase a child’s risk of developing egg allergy 3-fold and the risk of developing peanut allergy 11-fold.” This is because “vitamin D can help regulate the immune system so that the body is less susceptible to allergy. Urban living and time spent indoors reduce exposure to natural environments … [and] as the population increases and becomes denser, our exposure to green spaces and natural environments reduces, meaning the immune system misses numerous opportunities to encounter microbes and access to sunlight.” Generally, she concluded, researchers believe that the increased prevalence of food allergy is driven by multiple factors, although “studies suggest that increased urbanization seems to be a strong predictor in a given population.”
Stacy K. Silvers, MD, allergist & medical director at Aspire Allergy & Sinus (Colorado Springs, CO), added that “Year after year, more people, specifically children, are being diagnosed with food allergies to ‘the top nine.’ Some think this is environmental, and related to Western lifestyles, as we know that food allergies are most prevalent in developed countries rather than in developing countries and are also more likely to occur in urban areas rather than rural.”
According to Erika Gray, PharmD, CMO, co-founder, Toolbox Genomics located in Walnut Creek, CA, “The exponential increase in reported food allergies/sensitivities have been attributed to the increase in cesarean births, rampant antibiotic use (both as a prescription and in the food industry), as well as the standard American diet (SAD). These have been linked with decreased microbial diversity and abundance, resulting in increased food intolerance.”
Fortunately, companies and testing labs are providing consumers with knowledge and products to help them cope with their allergies and food intolerances.
Trends/State of the Market
According to Gray, “Research around celiac disease has greatly impacted food allergy/intolerance issues as of late. Restaurants have responded by creating and promoting gluten-free menu items and companies have incorporated gluten-free branding on their consumer products,” a trend that is helpful for millions of people. She added, “Studies have noted an increasing number of individuals without celiac disease report suffering from debilitating symptoms after eating gluten.”
Furthermore, another force impacting the gluten-free market is celebrity and social media influence. “Celebrities and various influencers have been outspoken about eliminating gluten from their diet and the health benefits they have experienced. As a result, gluten-free living has become more widely accepted.
Dr. Larson agreed that celebrities have an influence on the industry. “Every time a celebrity or professional athlete discusses benefits from eliminating one or more of the most common [allergens], this tends to rekindle the interest in people to evaluate themselves.”
COVID-19 has also impacted the industry, according to Gray. “The beginning of the pandemic saw supermarkets stripped of staple food items overnight due to an increase in panic buying in preparation of a lockdown. Individuals with food allergies, intolerances and preferences that require ‘free from’ labeling on products to meet their nutritional requirements, quickly became vocal about their struggles to find foods to fit their needs. Supermarkets increased signage, requesting shoppers to leave certain foods specifically for individuals that have limitations and requirements in their diets,” said Gray. Significantly, “A survey to determine the impact of COVID-19 on food allergy-related quality of life (FAQL) found 28 percent of responders reported negative impacts on children and adolescents with food allergies. Additionally, 27 percent of children and adolescents who sought medical care for food allergies reported difficulty in accessing medical services and a lack of adequate exploration of their food intolerances due to medical institutions prioritizing COVID-19 related illnesses.”
Dr. Brown concurred with Gray’s analysis of the market. “With more people becoming aware of how foods impact their symptoms and health, the market has certainly increased for food sensitivities,” she stated, adding that “It is important to note that not all Food Intolerance Tests are created equal, and with an increased market, there are more choices. Being cautious is important to ensure an accurate reading.”
As far as COVID-19, Dr. Brown noted “Because of the long-lasting effects some individuals experience, and the influence it can have on the immune system, it will be interesting to see if an increase in food intolerances begins to emerge.”
Building upon the impact COVID-19 has had on the industry, Julia Craven, vice president of education, Enzyme Science (Venice, FL) offered their insight. “During these stressful times, people have turned to food for comfort, and in so doing many are now feeling the impact of their choices. With the post-COVID-19 era in sight, many are also eager to travel to restaurants once again,” she stated. As a result, “Individuals are looking for that one product that they know they can rely on to allow them to enjoy their adventures without digestive discomforts slowing them down. Properly formulated digestive enzymes can help set them on their path to a healthier future.”
Furthermore, Craven added, COVID-19 disrupted the supply chain in the food intolerance market. “COVID-19 made obtaining certain ingredients more challenging; however, our commitment to quality was not and will not be compromised. Thankfully, sourcing and supply chains are returning to normal, allowing us to continue to provide health care professionals with the products they and their patients can rely on.”
Natural Solutions for Food Allergies/Intolerances
Consumers who believe that they may have a food allergy or intolerance should be encouraged to get tested to confirm whether they do or not. Gray noted that Toolbox Genomics has “a robust genetic and epigenetic test offering that allows individuals to investigate the genetic origins of their food intolerances/allergies. By understanding if [their] reaction to gluten, dairy, etc. is genetic in origin, [they] can make more informed lifestyle decisions. Additionally, epigenetic testing will allow [patients] to see if [their] diet/lifestyle has turned on inflammatory genes which may initiate an inflammatory cascade down the line.”
Gray also explained that there are several dietary supplements that have shown to be beneficial in supporting those with food intolerances. “Vitamin D3, probiotics, prebiotics, quercetin, zinc and l-glutamine have been studied extensively and determined to help decrease symptoms of food allergies/intolerances,” she said. “Vitamin D3 plays a crucial role in the immune system and blocking the mechanism behind making antibodies leading to food allergies. For instance, research found that there was an 11 percent greater chance in developing a peanut allergy in children with low vitamin D3 levels.”
Furthermore, “Bacteria in probiotics help create a healthy and robust immune system by helping balance the immune system and helping prevent the production of certain immune proteins like cytokines, which play a role in the development of food allergies. Probiotics also help break down and ferment insoluble fiber, making long chain fatty acids which have been shown to help decrease food intolerances and protect against food allergies.
Quercetin is a bioflavonoid with antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties to help balance the immune system and is thought to help prevent mast cells from releasing their contents, including histamine. When mast cells release histamine, an individual will experience typical allergic reactions.
Zinc is an important mineral that helps support the immune system and helps balance the oxidation/antioxidant rations. Preliminary research suggests that reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels increase when an individual is constantly exposed to allergen. Zinc helps balance ROS levels and supports antioxidant levels.
[And Lastly], l-glutamine is a conditional essential amino acid, meaning [the] body requires more than what it creates, especially during exercise. A study found that l-glutamine can normalize the effects of certain immune cells, reducing intestinal inflammation and helping individuals recover from food intolerances.”
Gray added, “To overcome food allergies, individuals often opt for food desensitization an oral immunotherapy treatment that desensitizes [the] body to the allergen, allowing an individual to eat the food without having an allergic reaction. Alternatively, some individuals who choose not to go through with desensitization may consume foods with an over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl to try and combat an allergic reaction before it occurs.” She also noted that homeopathy along with acupuncture have also been shown to help alleviate symptoms related to food intolerances and food allergies. However, individuals with severe allergies typically need to keep the pharmaceutical drug, EpiPen, handy in case of emergencies.
At Great Plains Laboratory, Dr. Brown explained that they “Offer an IgG panel to evaluate 190 foods, utilizing a new and innovative technology called XMAP. This methodology has been proven to be more sensitive than the more commonly used ELISA method. Additionally, clients have access to complimentary consultations with our staff to understand the results of the IgG Food Map.” Furthermore, “We can also guide them on what questions they may ask their practitioner to dig deeper into the underlying cause of their intolerances. We also offer additional testing that may help identify causes that contribute to the intolerances.”
Dr. Brown also noted that “The best natural approach to combatting food intolerance is avoidance in the diet. Special diets like a rotational diet that limits how often one eats the same food can help to prevent future food intolerances from developing.” As far as how to address the issue, “Therapies depend on the underlying cause of the intolerance. In general, the best practice is avoiding foods that are causing a reaction. In cases of intestinal permeability, correcting the underlying intestinal overgrowth with antimicrobial herbal agents reduces the offending substance causing gut inflammation. Herbs like oregano, grapefruit seed extract and garlic are wonderful. Also using gut lining healing herbs are helpful. Great agents to consider are marshmallow, slippery elm and l-glutamine. Immune supports like colostrum and IgG powder modulate immune function to reduce the immune activity in response to foods over time.”
Dr. Larson echoed Dr. Brown, stating that “The initial best thing to do is remove the food from the diet that the person is reacting to, then work on the underlying cause by supporting the intestinal microbiome and intestinal barrier with prebiotic-rich foods and probiotic-rich foods and supplements. Often, there is also a need for supporting the mucosal immune system with proper hydration, vitamin A-rich foods and supplements, vitamin D and omega-3-rich fish oil, like cod liver oil.”
Dr. Silvers, however, stated that “There is no true way to ‘combat’ food allergies other than immunotherapy, a process where you slowly introduce the problematic allergen into the body. Over time, the body gets used to the allergen and will ultimately no longer produce symptoms. At Aspire Allergy & Sinus, we recommend food allergy drops and oral immunotherapy.”
Craven shared that “Although there is no cure for food intolerances as well as allergies, there are multiple options for treatment.” she continued, “Elimination diets are one of the most natural choices when identifying an intolerance or allergy … In order to maintain complete avoidance of the irritant, patients are encouraged and provided guidance on how they can alter their diet while maintaining the full spectrum of essential nutrients.”
Enzyme Science focuses on gut health for total body wellness. “After identifying food intolerances, removing such foods is often the first step to allowing the gut to naturally recover and uncomfortable digestive responses to subside,” Craven said. Supplementing with targeted enzymes for food intolerances can provide relief should the individual experience accidental exposure, or chooses to indulge.*” She continued, “The best supplements for tackling food intolerances are products that have high potencies in protease, amylase, lipase and cellulase.* These enzymes are significant when it comes to fat, fiber protein and carbohydrate digestion.”
Enzyme Science offers a product with these attributes called Intolerance Complex, which “provides a specialized blend of enzymes to support the digestion of gluten, lactose, casein and phenols,” Craven explained. In addition, it “includes a multitude of high potency protease, amylase, lipase and cellulase including enzymes dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV), lactase, xylanase and alpha galactosidase for targeted gluten, dairy, phenol and complex carbohydrate digestion.*” The company also offers Complete Digestion, which “contains a comprehensive full spectrum formula of these enzymes that support digestion of an entire meal.*”
For those who have children with food intolerances or allergies, a company called Mabel’s Labels offers several products to ease parents’ minds. The company’s Customizable Allergy Alert Labels, which are available for $21.50 for 24 labels, keep kids safe by “clearly highlighting any allergies on food containers, lunch bags and gear.” The labels are customizable with a child’s name and allergy details to keep them safe at school, daycare, camp and everywhere else they go.
Mabel’s Labels also offers Kids’ Medical Alert Labels for the same price. They can be customized with a medical concern, name, details of the concern and contact information for emergencies. In addition, the company offers also has Custom Medical Tags and Silicone ID Bracelets for $10.50. The metal tags come in packages of two and can be attached to backpacks, lunch bags and travel gear, and can also be customized with a child’s medical concerns and contact information. The wristbands can be customized with the child’s name and phone number so they can be quickly identified for their safety.
Although there is no cure for food allergies or intolerances, individuals can keep themselves naturally safe by practicing avoidance of foods to which they react, taking certain supplements, keeping their guts healthy and using labels for increased safety. Practitioners can keep all of these precautions in mind when working with their patients who have food allergies or intolerances.
Advice for Practitioners
As far as what practitioners can do to maximize their treatment efforts with patients, Gray explained that “With the use of cutting-edge technology like genomic testing, practitioners can hone in on what exactly is causing individuals to react to foods and supplements the way that they are, for a more personalized and holistic approach to an individuals’ treatment plan.”
Dr. Brown cautioned that “It is extremely important to ensure the patient does not restrict too many foods and is able to meet their micro and macro nutrient needs. Providing alternatives that are similar in nutrients to the foods being removed would be extremely helpful, as well as continued support from the practitioner and their staff throughout the process of changing the diet.”
Dr. Silvers advised that “Practitioners are encouraged to move patients beyond just avoidance if the allergy is severe. We have great relationships with referring providers throughout the country with whom we have successfully helped patients get to a point of safety with their food allergies, to the point where they are no longer life-threatening.”
Lastly, Enzyme Science advised that practitioners provide “blood and skin tests to identify food allergies and intolerances … It is important to realize that no matter the level of severity of these allergies or intolerances, both should be taken seriously as they can have varying effects on overall health. Encouraging elimination of food irritants should be heavily emphasized. Targeted enzyme support can help ease reactions from exposure when it does occur and in so doing, support the other modalities that are being employed.”
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Healthy Take Aways
• Each year in the U.S., 200,000 people require emergency medical care for allergic reactions to food.
• The nine most common allergens, according to www.foodallergyawareness.org, are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat and sesame.
• One in 10 adults and one in 13 children totaling 32 million Americans have food allergies.
For More Information:
Aspire Allergy & Sinus, www.aspireallergy.com
Cyrex Laboratories, www.cyrexlabs.com
Enzyme Science, www.enzyscience.com
Great Plains Laboratory, www.greatplainslaboratory.com
Mabel’s Labels, www.mabelslabels.com
Toolbox Genomics, www.toolboxgenomics.com