As the number of food allergy sufferers in developed nations grows, business leaders have an opportunity and responsibility to lead the way in creating a safer, more joyful world for us all—by serving more customers in an inclusive, intentional way.
Millions of children and adults throughout the U.S. and the world must carefully avoid one or several foods to stay healthy and safe. The number of people with food allergies rises dramatically every decade—creating challenges for their everyday lives. Today, 32 million Americans have food allergies, 5.6 million of whom are children. More than 50 percent of adult food allergy sufferers have developed food allergies in adulthood.
According to FARE, an organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life and the health of individuals with food allergies, private insurance claims related to anaphylactic food reactions rose 377 percent from 2007 to 2016. (FARE) Moreover, caring for children with food allergies costs U.S. families nearly $25 billion annually.
While an increase in what can be a deadly health concern escalates the need for research resources to investigate the causes and solutions, it also presents an opportunity for business leaders to serve customers by enabling them to live safe and comfortable lives despite food allergies. By considering this often neglected group in the products and services we offer, the business community can have a meaningful impact on creating easier, healthier lives for millions of Americans, especially children and families who face daily challenges because of food allergies.
Children today are more likely to be allergic to certain foods than in years past. Researchers estimate that roughly 5.6 million children are allergic to at least one food allergen.
According to FARE, a food allergy reaction sends somebody to the emergency room every 3 minutes, and each year in the U.S., 200,000 people require emergency medical care for allergic reactions to food.
Industrialized societies, specifically, are experiencing an increase in food allergy cases. Between 1995 and 2016, the UK saw a jarring five-fold increase in peanut allergies with some studies suggesting as many as 2.5% of toddlers in the London area are allergic to peanuts. And in Australia, where child food allergy statistics are especially high, a study found 9% of 1-year-olds had an egg allergy, and 3% were allergic to peanuts. (BBC)
Possible Causes of Rising Food Allergies
Why are food allergies on the rise? Some point to genetics, as some people are more genetically predisposed to food allergies than others. But many experts, including “grandfather of allergy” Dr. Bill Frankland, warn against linking genetic predisposition to the uptick in food allergy cases, as the proportion of genetically predisposed cases hasn’t risen significantly over time. (Financial Times)
A more likely culprit is a shift in the human environment. Three specific changes may be partially to blame.
First is a delay in children’s exposure to certain allergens, caused by increased caution around food allergens. With food allergies on the rise, well-meaning doctors over the past few decades have recommended shielding children from common food allergies—advice that may have inadvertently backfired. The “Learning Early About Peanut” (LEAP) study of 640 children revealed that those regularly exposed to peanuts at a very young age were nearly six times less likely to develop a peanut allergy by age 5 than those shielded from exposure. (LEAP)
While introducing common food allergens to children, especially those who’ve been indicated as “high-risk,” can feel scary for parents, many experts are beginning to recommend it as a potential method for allergy prevention.
A second possible environmental factor is a large-scale change in the composition of the human microbiome—in short, our modern, sterile way of living may be making us more susceptible to food allergies.
Human bodies contain their own ecosystems composed of trillions of microbes, including fungi, bacteria and viruses. Much of the microbiome is populated by microbes we come into contact with throughout our lives, through our natural environments and the food we eat. The so-called hygiene hypothesis posits that healthier microbiomes result from heavier exposure to germs, bacteria and viruses. It suggests that children raised in less sterile environments have bodies that can differentiate well between harmless and harmful substances, and are therefore less likely to have adverse reactions to innocuous substances, such as peanuts. (Mayo Clinic)
One final possible culprit for the rise in food allergies is a lack of exposure to sunlight. A 2007 study looked at EpiPen prescriptions in the U.S. through a geographical lens, finding that northern, darker areas of the country have a much higher concentration of prescriptions than southern, sunnier regions.
Sunlight exposure allows human bodies to create vitamin D, meaning people who don’t spend much time in the sun or natural environments often have vitamin D deficiencies. Well-meaning parents often shield their children from sunlight, but some studies suggest too much protection could result in a higher risk of food allergies. One study found that infants who were vitamin D deficient were three times more likely to have an egg allergy and 11 times more likely to have a peanut allergy. (MCRI)
Though researchers continue to delve into how food allergies develop (and how they can be avoided), it seems likely that a societal shift away from the natural world, especially in highly developed regions, is playing a role.
Unfortunately, societies in developed countries are continuing to become more sheltered from the natural world. One recent study revealed that most U.S. adults spend five hours or less in nature each week. (Yale)
These statistics, and their increase over time, are cause for investigation—but they’re also cause for action. As food allergies rise, how can business leaders use our practices and products to serve these customers to make life better and more enjoyable for this growing segment of our population? How can we use our resources and capabilities to ensure that food allergies don’t interfere with safely eating, shopping, traveling and enjoying life to the fullest?
Immediate action can and should be taken on the part of everyone involved in the food supply chain – from companies and institutions to retailers and service providers – to create a safer, more accessible environment for food-allergy sufferers.
First and foremost, continued research into how food allergies take hold and whether they can be completely prevented, or even cured, is necessary. Funding for this research is critical. Fortunately, some organizations, such as E.A.T. (End Allergies Together) – which recently announced a $1 Million Grand Challenge to End Anaphylaxis – are stepping up to fund innovative research initiatives. But additional resources are needed to address this issue.
Allergy diagnosing also shows room for improvement. Skin-prick testing, a common method for diagnosis, has been proven fallible, at least some of the time. Researchers have observed false positives in hundreds of cases, resulting in unnecessary fears among patients. (Scientific American)
But in order to truly address the needs of food allergy sufferers, clinical diligence must be paired with changes in our society and institutions—including an onus on business leaders to serve and accommodate the millions who deal with food allergies on a daily basis.
Improper or unclear food labeling can be deadly. While the FDA requires manufacturers to disclose the presence of the eight major food allergens on product packaging, format specifications for that information leave room for confusion among consumers. Moreover, many products are exempt from labeling requirements. (FDA) Knowledge of, and scrutiny into, product supply chains needs to be improved alongside better monitoring of how food ingredients are grown, processed, stored and shipped.
As business leaders, we can and should be leaders in this arena.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) now includes many severe food allergies in its definition of “disability.” However, while the ADA has required allergy-free options at some institutions, it doesn’t require restaurants and other food service providers, as a whole, to accommodate for allergy sufferers. (ADA) This leaves the onus on business and institutional leaders.
Transparency among manufacturers, retailers and the service industry can and should be met. If grocery stores had clearly labeled food allergen-free sections, for example, families would have a significantly easier time locating safe foods. If restaurants, airlines, schools and other institutions responsible for feeding people not only understood the needs of food allergy sufferers but also created accommodations for them, families could navigate the world with greater ease.
Serving the growing segment of the population who makes purchases with food allergies in mind also makes business sense. Recent surveys focused on how nut allergies affect buying habits show that about one in three U.S. shoppers has made a purchase decision influenced by a nut allergy. Moreover, two-thirds of shoppers consider nut allergies when buying products for events that include children. (Food Navigator) The buying power of consumers concerned about food allergens will increase alongside food allergy rates and public awareness.
Despite their growing numbers, food allergy sufferers often feel as if they can’t fully and safely participate in everyday activities. But all people deserve access to a comfortable, safe environment—and business leaders who ignore this growing need are neglecting serving a significant portion of the public. It’s time for society, institutions, researchers—and business leaders—to prioritize identifying solutions for the millions of children and adults worldwide with food allergies.
Immediate Action Steps: Understand, Educate, Act
- Retailers: Make an effort to create easy-to-find allergy-free sections in stores, and be diligent about verifying that the products within are safe for people allergic to the big eight food allergens.
- Food Manufacturers: Develop a deep understanding of your products’ supply chain and ensure your manufacturing processes are geared toward making your products safe. Do you know where your raw materials were processed and how? Did you test raw materials before you let them into your facility?
- Institutions: Support continued food-allergy research with funding and advocacy. Funding for research in the food allergy arena is only a fraction of what it needs to be, especially considering the scope of the issue. We’re still a long way from completely understanding how food allergies work and why they only affect certain people, so ongoing research is vital.
Travel Services: Take steps toward making traveling safe for everybody. Travel can be one of the most stressful situations for a food allergy. Airports, airlines, cruise lines, hotels and restaurants all have a responsibility to serve those with food allergies and make their environments safe. Airlines alone have the potential to serve roughly 29,000 people with food allergies every day. While some airlines are beginning to create better accommodations for passengers with peanut allergies, accommodations for food-allergy sufferers in general need work. (FARE) Airlines should provide allergen-free snack and meal options, educate staff to understand how to care for allergy sufferers, and create action plans for when and if severe allergy sufferers want to fly with their airlines. Restaurants and hotels can accommodate food allergy sufferers by training their staff to manage their kitchens and spaces to avoid cross contamination and create good options for travelers to eat healthy when on the road.