CHICAGO - Food allergies are more common among people of color and those in lower income households, compared to their White counterparts and those earning higher salaries, according to newly-published research.
The topic of food allergies has flown under the radar for most racial and ethnic communities, according to the authors behind a new study, published on June 14 in JAMA Open Network.
There have been few studies focusing on population-based data of food allergy among racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., the authors said – and most of the previous studies focused on children.
Food allergies, in which exposure to certain foods triggers an allergic reaction ranging from mild itching or hives to throat tightening or difficulty breathing, impact an estimated 32 million Americans, according to FARE, a food allergy research and advocacy organization.
In some cases, food allergies can lead to anaphylaxis – a sudden, serious reaction that can cause death.
Each year, 200,000 people in the U.S. require emergency medical care for food-related allergic reactions, according to FARE.
Nine major food allergens, milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, crustacean shellfish, and sesame, are responsible for a majority of the serious reactions, the organization states.
Food allergies most common among Asian, Hispanic, Black
The study was based on a survey of nearly 80,000 individuals across 50,000 households in the U.S. between October 2015 and September 2016.
It found that the prevalence of food allergies are highest among Asian (10.5%), Hispanic (10.6%) and non-Hispanic Black individuals (10.6%) across all ages.
Additionally, Black individuals with food allergies were the most likely to report having reactions to multiple foods (50.6%), according to the study.
Asian and White individuals had the lowest rates of severe food allergy reactions, the study found.
The study also found differences in the kinds of foods people are allergic to. Asian adults were the most likely to report a peanut allergy (2.9%) and shellfish allergy (3.8%). Black adults had the highest prevalence of tree nut allergies (1.6%), while Hispanic adults were most likely to reported egg (1.2%) and fin fish allergies (1.5%), according to the study.
Furthermore, those who had the lowest number of food allergies lived in households earning more than $150,000 per year (8.3%).
FILE - Peanut butter is pictured. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)
"Food allergies are not frequently talked about impacting racial and ethnic communities," said study corresponding author Dr. Ruchi Gupta. "It’s not on the radar. But we now know it does impact them more, and it’s important to improve awareness.
"It is also critical to improve access to diagnosis and treatments for food allergy," added Gupta, who also serves as director of the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research and is a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
There have been several new treatments developed for food allergies, including various forms of immunotherapy – like oral, epicutaneous (on the skin) and sublingual (under the tongue). All these treatments desensitize the immune system to the allergen, according to the researchers.
Another treatment is new biologics, which block the allergic reaction cascade, Gupta said.
‘Something has changed in the environment’
The study also suggests that several allergic conditions all have similar patterns in terms of who is affected. The ensemble is part of a progression of allergic conditions that start in infancy and continue into childhood. The pattern, called the "atopic march," includes eczema, food allergy, allergic rhinitis and asthma.
"There haven’t been enough genetic changes over the last 30 to 40 years to explain this grouping of allergic conditions," study co-author Christopher Warren, an epidemiologist and an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, said in a statement.
"Clearly, something has changed in the environment," Warren said. "It behooves us to figure out what are those changes, and how can we reverse them or add interventions to mitigate them."
The researchers also highlighted the importance of socioeconomic factors, which were "likely associated with food allergy outcomes by race and ethnicity" in the study. They noted how fewer reports of food allergy reactions among higher-income households may be associated with having more access to treatment options. Individuals using government-sponsored nutritional support programs may also have more difficulty accessing allergen-free options.
"These socioeconomic factors should be factored into future analyses of the association of race and ethnicity with (food allergy) because these social constructs may influence each other," the study authors wrote.
"We now know that racial and ethnic minorities as well as underserved populations often do not get to an allergist for diagnosis," Gupta said. "They have the symptoms of food allergy but the access to get to a specialist has been challenging, and the fact that there were no treatments led them to just try and avoid the food."
"It Is an exciting time in food allergy with new diagnostics, prevention and treatments," Gupta continued. "Our goal is to see these numbers start to come down in the next 30 to 40 years."
This story was reported from Cincinnati.