Why Do Rich Kids Have More Food Allergies?

Wealthy children are exposed to less germs, which leaves them vulnerable to food allergies.

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Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

When it comes to food and nutrition, we often worry about low-income families who need assistance getting healthy food on the table, fighting childhood obesity, and just keeping hunger at bay. But it turns out that kids from wealthier families may have a surprising worry as well. According to a new study presented at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology meeting earlier this month, children from affluent families may be more likely to develop life-threatening peanut allergies, in part, because they’re not exposed to enough germs in early childhood.

Those findings support the long-held “hygiene hypothesis,” which proposes that children who aren’t exposed to enough germs in early childhood are at greater risk for developing an allergy—an idea first introduced over 20 years ago.

“That’s one of the theories that people suspect may be contributing to the increased prevalence of allergies,” Dr. Stanley Fineman, past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, tells TakePart. “The study adds a little bit of fuel to that fire.”

Researchers looked at 8,300 people and found that nearly 800 had elevated antibody levels to peanuts. The study’s lead author, United States Air Force Major Sandy Yip, MD, said that overall household income was associated with peanut sensitization in children ages one to nine, but by age 10, the link between peanut allergies and wealth wasn’t as clear.

“It’s important to remember that you can have sensitivity, but not the allergy,” says Dr. Ruchi Gupta, associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern Medicine, and author of The Food Allergy Experience.

Unfortunately, for most children allergic to peanuts, the diagnosis is a lifelong burden. While many outgrow common food allergies to things like eggs, milk or wheat, only 20 percent of children outgrow a peanut allergy. Currently, peanut allergies affect an estimated 400,000 school-aged children, and the trend appears to be on the rise. And while the experimental Oral Immunotherapy Treament (OIT), in which a physician will have a patient swallow a tiny dose of peanut protein, appears promising, there’s currently no sure-fire cure. Nor is there consensus on the best time to introduce peanut products to avoid allergies. Hard data on introducing peanuts to the child’s diet to thwart allergies before two years of age or delaying it until after two is still fuzzy, says Gupta.

So are parents who keep an uber-clean house to blame for a child’s peanut allergy? The answer isn’t clear, but no one is saying throw out the soap just yet.

“We shouldn’t be saying ‘Don’t wash your hands’,” says Gupta. “Soap and water is healthy. But we’ve gotten excessive in using antibacterial soaps and wiping everything down with antibacterial products. It’s almost a moderation thing.”

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