By: Heather Williams
Food allergies are a very serious reality for a lot of people. Approximately 15 million people in the United States suffer from food allergies, according to a recent statistical analysis published by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). In a 2009 to 2010 survey, 5.9 million children were found to have at least one food allergy. To put that into perspective, that is 8 percent of the minor population or 1 in every 13 children. The study explains that about 2 children in each classroom have a food allergy. Many, but not all food allergies resolve in childhood, leaving 4 percent of adults having a food allergy. That is 9 million people. According to ongoing surveys, it seems that food allergies are increasing each year. In fact, a CDC report indicated a 50 percent increase in child related food allergies between a study conducted between 1997 and 1999 and another study conducted between 2009 and 2011.
What is a Food Allergy?
A food allergy is an adverse response that occurs when exposed to a particular food. When a person is allergic to a specific food, their body’s immune system reacts to and attacks food proteins that are normally harmless. Symptoms associated with the body’s response range from mild skin issues to severe and life threatening anaphylaxis.
According to FARE research, more that 170 different foods have been reported as causing allergic reactions in the U.S. These allergens are broken down into eight different categories. These include: peanut, tree nuts, milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish. The study found that milk, egg, and peanut are more common in young children whereas teenagers and adults experience peanut, tree nuts, and seafood (fish and crustacean shellfish) more than other allergens. Sesame is an emerging allergen increasing in numbers, causing severe reactions which include fatal anaphylaxis.
How Does This Affect Daily Life?
Other than the expected health risk, those with a food allergy often have other obstacles in their daily lives. From being bullied, left out of typical childhood activities, avoiding restaurants, and even additional health risks to family members were noted.
Surveys indicated that 1 in 3 children reported being bullied as a result of a food allergy, with that number increasing to 50 percent in children who have allergies to more than two foods. Most schools have an anti-bully policy, but combined with this issue and preventative avoidance of allergy triggers, 10 percent of parent of children with food allergies have opted to home school their children. Unfortunately, 20 to 25 percent of the cases where a child needs emergency epinephrine administration at school occur in children where an allergy was unknown at the time.
Away From Home Activities
Families who have a child with food allergies are more likely to restrict social activities. Of the parents surveyed, one quarter reported that they did not allow their child to participate in camp are sleepovers because of the child’s allergy. More than 15 percent of those parents reported that they do not go to restaurants. This is often more prevalent in the first year after diagnosis, with about half parents of young children restricting travel and social activities in the first year.
Having a young child with a food allergy is very stressful for parents. Avoidance of naturally healthy foods that could cause severe reactions or even death is a full time responsibility. Not surprising, mothers of children with food allergies have significantly higher blood-pressure measurements and according to the survey also report greater levels of psychosocial stress than other mothers who’s preschool-aged children are not affected by food allergies.
Technology Alleviates Food Fears
Several companies have created technology to help those who suffer with food allergies identify potential allergens in food. While most food is labeled appropriately, the risk of improper labeling or cross-contamination with an allergen is a risk for those with severe allergies. AllerGo!, Nima, Tellspec,and iTube are just a few of the nifty allergen testers on the market. Some use existing tester strip technology, while other use your cell phone and a wavelength sensor adapter that attaches right to your smartphone.
AllerGo! is a test-strip style portable allergen test created by two young inventors. With the collaboration of a biochemist from Columbus State University and donated materials from food-safety company Neogen Corp., 11 year old Evan and 13 year old Will created an antibody-based test strip. Evan’s motivation for wanting to create a portable test strip stems from his severe egg allergy.
The test is performed by swabbing the food to be tested, dipping the swab in a capsule of distilled water. Then the capsule is shaken for one minute. The water is then poured into the capsule cap and the tester is place flat on the cap. Lines will appear on the test strip to indicate if an allergen is present. Antibodies from the blood of an animal that is allergic to a particular allergen are embedded in the region of the test strip lines. Currently the test strips only test for egg and milk, but additional allergen test strips are being added in the future.
Nima tests for gluten in a variety of foods such as soups, sauces, baked goods, and fried items. However, the test cannot identify gluten in soy sauce, pure vinegar, beer, or alcohol. Nima works by testing a sample of food placed in a one-time use capsule. These capsules can be ordered by subscription service at an interval that works best for your needs. The capsule contains all of the chemistry needed to analyze the food item. The capsule is then placed into the Nima device and data from the device is connected with the Bluetooth from your smartphone. Once the data is analyzed, it will indicate if gluten is present in the food with a 20 parts per million sensitivity level. If under 20 parts per million, the device will feature a smile. If gluten is present in the food, a wheat icon will appear and indicate gluten present.
Tellspec uses a handheld scanner that detects near infrared light. The internal light source focuses a beam of light through the front window of the scanner onto the food. Once the reflected light is collected by the scanner a digital electronic signal, or spectrum, analyzes the characteristics of the composition of the food. An advanced algorithm interprets the signal and sends information on the unique fingerprint of the food to your smartphone.
A team of researchers from UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science has created a light-weight portable allergen detection device called iTube. The food sample is prepared by grinding up ad mixing the food sample into a test tube with hot water and an extraction solvent. After setting for several minutes, a series of other testing liquids is added. This process takes around 20 minutes. The data is recorded by a handheld device attached to your smartphone and uses the smartphone camera.
There are several options when it comes to testing food for allergens. If you have or care for a child with a severe food allergy, peace of mind is often worth the wait. Perhaps, one of these technological food allergen detectors is right for you.