The amount of food allergies has risen about 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, but are people really allergic to certain foods or can it all be blamed on toxic chemicals that are increasingly being added to everyday foods? The Food Allergy Research and Education says there are 15 million Americans with allergies to dairy, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. While some of those allergies are really caused by a mistaken response of the body, others could simply be caused by chemicals that are not tested for safety.
Dr. Claudia Miller, researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center proposed a new disease mechanism in 1996 called toxicant-induced loss of tolerance (TILT). Miller says that toxic chemicals may result in a tolerance of everyday foods. In addition, she says that these same toxicants may be the blame for other illnesses as well, including chronic fatigue, autism and attention deficit disorder, which are increasingly seen in children in the past years. Miller says, “Most of the chemicals have been developed only since World War II and our bodies are unable to adapt to them. Chemicals do not affect everyone in the same way, but those who are more sensitive will develop a food allergy to foods that never bothered them before.” Miller’s research is still ongoing at the moment, but some experts say that her hypothesis does not make sense and that she is running ahead of things.
“It is too vague,” says Dr. Karin Pachego from the National Jewish Health Medical Center in Denver. “There is no way to explain why the exposure to certain chemicals makes the body more sensitive to others and therefore, food allergies cannot be blamed on chemicals as long as there is no hard evidence.” Pachego also warns patients of medical scams which claim to treat chemical exposure with unproven vitamins and supplements. “Some patients spend thousands of dollars on these treatments and they are not covered by insurance, simply because these treatments are not proven to cure anything,” she says. Miller, however, is on a mission and her advice is to avoid any exposure to chemicals in food if people feel they are sensitive to it. She says, “TILT may not be proven yet, but there are people who have resolved their food allergies by staying away from chemicals.”
Scott Sicherer, MD, thinks Miller is mixing up food intolerance and food allergies. According to him, only a small group of people have real food allergies. “There are many people who avoid foods because of misinterpretation instead of a real food allergy,” he says. The body can develop food intolerance at any age and most people are still able to eat limited amounts without any issues. Large amounts may cause discomfort, such as gas, bloating or diarrhea and by limiting the intake of certain foods, the food may be reintroduced into the diet in the future. Sicherer says that food allergies, however, are more serious and send more than 30,000 people to the hospital every year. In case of a food allergy, the body’s immune system goes into an attack mode when eating certain foods, such as peanuts. People may experience red, itchy skin, swollen eyes or dizziness.
The rise in food allergies in the past years also raises questions about weight loss and diets. Registered Dietician and Nutritionist Lauren Schmitt says that the two are heavily related. “Some see food allergies as the answer to losing weight or something that will force them to eliminate certain foods from their diet. It is a way to have an unhealthy relationship with food without being judged,” she says. Other nutritionists agree with Schmitt and say food allergies (whether they are real or fake) require a strict diet and may even result into eating disorders. Skipping a slice of cheesecake in a social setting because of a food allergy will not raise as many questions as a weight loss program.
While Dr. Claudia Miller still blames the increasing food allergies on chemicals, other doctors and nutritionists believe the rise is also part of a trend. To help identity TILT, Miller has developed a Quick Environmental Exposure and Sensitivity Inventory, a do-it-yourself screening tool for chemical intolerance. The tool can be found in the source links below.
By Diana Herst