Why are So Many Kids Deathly Allergic to Food?

Back in the good old days, very few kids had severe allergies. Now they are everywhere. What happened?

One in every 13 kids has a food allergy. That comes out to an average of two students in every classroom. The number of allergic and asthmatic kids multiplied two or three times over in the late 20th century, and food allergies in particular remain on the increase. The New York Times observes that “each new generation seems to have more severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reactions than the last.”

In the 1970s I didn’t know a single child with a food allergy. I brought a peanut butter sandwich to school every day, causing not one problem. Since then, peanut allergies have skyrocketed, tripling in just the 11 years between 1997 and 2008. We have gone from cafeterias full of peanut butter to banning the stuff altogether. My niece’s camp confiscated the chocolate I sent her because it contained “traces of nuts.”

Experts have some theories about the cause of what they call the allergy epidemic. One is that we’ve gotten too clean.

Urban kids in China are much more likely to be allergic than those who live on farms. The same trend was observed in England as far back as the 1800s. Modern American Amish kids who spend their time in a “manure-splattered cowshed” from an early age, and whose mothers worked in the same place while pregnant, are one of the least likely groups in the developed world to have allergies, according to The Times. The key mechanism at work may be that exposure to a wide variety and huge quantity of microbes is stimulating pregnant women’s immune systems, protecting them and their fetuses from sensitivity to allergens.

But that theory poses a conundrum: a highly-stimulated immune system is what creates allergic reactions. The system misidentifies harmless substances, like nuts, as deadly, and goes into overdrive to attack them. It isn’t the nuts themselves that kill allergic kids — it is their own immune systems’ response to the nuts. Paradoxically, people believe that boosting their immune systems will reduce symptoms of many things, including the common cold, but that is backwards. Cold viruses themselves are harmless; your own immune system causes everything that makes colds miserable.

What may actually be happening in populations like the Amish appears more subtle than just “stimulating” the immune system, which suggests priming it to attack foreign bodies. Instead, exposure to microbes prompts a very specific immune response: making more regulatory T-cells. These white blood cells calm the immune system down when it encounters foreign but non-threatening substances. Newborns usually don’t have a lot of these cells, but pregnant women exposed to many different microbes produce more of them than usual, which appears to protect their babies even after birth.

Regulatory T-cells aren’t the only explanation that has been thrown up the flagpole. Popular Science posits that children today aren’t spending enough time outside, which cheats them of Vitamin D, which at higher levels helps the immune system identify innocuous substances and leave them be. Anne Muņoz-Furlong, CEO of the nonprofit Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, thinks that scientific progress, including hygiene and successful treatments for infections, has left children’s immune systems with little to do, so they go looking for things to attack. As Live Science puts it, they’re bored.

Discovery Fit & Health reports more theories. Food additives and pesticides may be altering the flora in our guts in a way that makes us more sensitive to allergens. Other new things in food, like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and new proteins in dairy products, may be the culprits. For something completely different, cesarean sections appear to increase children’s risk of developing allergies.

In short, we don’t know what’s going on or what to do about it, but two things are clear. One, we have to figure out how to restore our children’s resilience in the presence of everyday things like peanuts. Two, anti-bacterial soap is not the answer.


Photo credit: Thinkstock/iStock


Olga Guppy
Olga Guppy2 years ago

Nurse your babies fully until 6 months old at least, cook and puree all the baby food yourself, do not buy the bottled sort, wait as long as you can after 6 months to introduce any product containing wheat, i.e. no biscuits, rusks, bread, etc. This is how it used to be up to the 1950's, when food allergies were rare and bizarre. When newborns were given Gerber's baby cereal to have something in their tummy to enable them to sleep through the night so their working parents could get some rest, that was the beginning of the end, with a concomitant spike in allergies and asthma.

Vicky P.
Vicky P.2 years ago


2 years ago

Sorry Alex, but that's just one aspect...and I know several (grand)children of friends and family who have NOT vaccinated, and their kids are developing food allergies and other environmental allergies around the ages of 2 to 4.
We can't blame the vaccines for that.

Look to the toxic chemical environment.

Alex H.
Alex H.2 years ago

I can't believe that people still refuse to get their heads out of the sand on this issue,and stare down that "sacred cow",vaccines!!! These huge increases in allergies have coincided with the huge increase in numbers of vaccines pumped into babies and tiny kids,before their immune systems have had a chance to fully develop!!!No wonder whatever immune systems they end up with,are completely in disarray,hence all the allergies!?Amish people tend not to vaccinate and they also lead very simple lives and eat simple,pure,homemade food.Learn from them!!!

Sonali G.
Sonali G.2 years ago

It sounds to me like a lot of people believe that playing in the dirt and not being over sterile as a child helped towards building up immunity to a lot of natural bugs and germs etc. The only problem now is that the soil that we now have to play in is contaminated by goodness knows what these days. The air that we breathe is full of pollution and intensive production of everything around us has led to high concentrations of crap in our water, food and atmosphere. You can no longer avoid exposure to contaminates of any kind which all interfere with our bodies and our childrens development as well. I played in the dirt as a child and I was raised in a rural area but I have also been exposed to all sorts of chemical pollutants from the farm land and water around me as a child. I was raised on a poor diet of tinned food which we all now know to contain BPA; a chemical that has been found to cause numerous reproductive problems amongst others. I have developed allergies to perfumes, soap, I react to the cold weather and break out in hives and have since had symptoms of reproductive disorders in the form of fibroid tumours (which I believe is linked to a diet of BPA in tinned foods). I think that it is impossible to avoid exposure now and our modern health problems will continue to increase exponentially

Sue H.
Sue H.2 years ago

Seems to me that all of these theories are contributing to the problem, but chemicals are likely to be the main culprit.

Winn Adams
Winn Adams2 years ago


2 years ago

Yes Kamia...but only if you eat organically grown whole fruits and vegetables without the pesticides that are sealed onto the skin by the wax they use to coat the fruit / apples with to make them shiny and appealing.

You CANNOT wash the pesticide residue off once it has been sealed under the wax, so you have to peel the fruit or eat the pesticide.

Kamia T.
Kamia T.2 years ago

If you read all of the chemicals that are put into processed foods today, and that one food can contain a bunch of other stuff mixed into it because of mass processing and packaging, it is any wonder that kids (and adults) allergies are escalating, not to mention many chronic diseases. Growing up, we ate a carrot -- not a carrot slathered with sauces & preservatives. We ate an apple -- not an apple sauced with added nuts and gunk. There's a reason eating whole unprocessed foods keeps you healthier.

2 years ago


Aside from that, I'm walking proof that chemicals permanently damage the immune system....and I live with the effects every day, and they DO get worse as I age....to the point where I can't be in public places anymore because I get so sick from the scents and invisible vapors of chemicals all around. I haven't been able to eat restaurant food in almost 30yrs due tot the food allergies and sensitivities. Most chemicals ARE poison.