More than 32 million Americans – including 5.6 million children – suffer from food allergies, according to data from the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education. That scales down to about two children classroom. Over the last two decades, the number of children sent to the hospital for food allergies has tripled. Though the number of children with food allergies worldwide in is increasing, little is known about the exact cause.
Leading theories range from the “hygiene hypothesis” – that over-sterilized environments disrupt the development of gut bacteria – to the notion that the increase in cases stems from an increase in reporting. Researchers have also pinpointed certain ingredients common in fast food that disrupt the immune system and make children more susceptible to developing allergies, including advanced glycation end products, often referred to as AGEs.
“AGEs are proteins or lipids that become glycated after exposure to sugars and are present at high levels in junk foods – deriving from sugars, processed foods, microwaved foods and roasted or barbecued meats,” explained Roberto Berni Canani, chief of the allergy program at the Department of Translational Medical Science at the University of Naples in Italy.
“It’s better to consume high fiber, or to cook the foods with boiling,” he said in an interview. “It’s not that you can’t consume any particular substance but if you are able to consume every day grilled meat or junk food or French fries, all of these are full of AEGs and could increase the risk of developing allergies.”
Led by Canani, researchers investigated the correlation between levels of AGEs and the development of allergies in 61 children aged 6 to 12. The children were divided into groups: those with food allergies, those with respiratory allergies, and those without allergies. The group that exhibited the highest AGEs were children who had developed food allergies.
AGEs impact the immune system by “mimicking signals provoked by tissue damage,” according to the team’s statement. Allergies are an immediate immune response caused by an antigen like milk, eggs or peanuts.
Allergies can be life-threatening and are distinct from food intolerances, which are often associated with gas, bloating, and loose stools.
While there is strong evidence AGEs contribute to the development of childhood food allergies, Canani said the connection is not directly causal and that genetic and environmental variables must be factored in as well.
“The most important message of this kind of research is to pay attention to the kind of food your child is eating,” Canani said. “Pay attention and try to increase the consumption of homemade foods, boiled meats and fresh fruits or vegetables.”
Canani is also investigating the connection between breast milk composition and the development of childhood allergies. He postulates that mothers with healthy diets transfer more anti-allergens to their babies through breast milk than do those with diets high in AGEs. However, he cautions the research is in its early stages and data are still being collected.
Canani and his team will present their findings Saturday to the European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition in Glasgow, Scotland.