'It's so, so terrible': The rise of food allergies and the cost-of-living crisis

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Food allergies have been increasing, with the cost-of-living crisis putting a significant pressure on those with life-threatening allergies. Image Source: Daisy-Daisy/Getty Images
Food allergies have been increasing, with the cost-of-living crisis putting a significant pressure on those with life-threatening allergies. Image Source: Daisy-Daisy/Getty Images

Related tags food allergens Food allergies cost-of-living crisis

It is well-known that food allergies are increasing. Amid a cost-of-living crisis, this is a problem.

Living with a deadly food allergy often means relying on allergy-free alternatives. But with rising food costs, a lot of consumers find that they are paying far more for these alternatives.

Cost-of-living squeeze

Allergy-free alternatives are very often more expensive than their allergen-filled counterparts. According to a study by Allergy UK, the cost-of-living crisis has meant that prices of these foods have more than doubled. The study of nine foods found that allergy-free alternatives cost up to 138% more than their counterparts.

A previous study undertaken by the Food Standards Agency showed that people with allergies have a 12% – 27% greater financial burden than those without.

It's so, so terrible. Bigger grocery bills - from more expensive products - can take a toll on allergy families and individuals alike​,” Theresa Macphail, medical anthropologist and author, told FoodNavigator.

I interviewed several people struggling to purchase allergen-free food - which tend to be more expensive than their equivalents - due to limited income. As the price of everything rises, even normal people are getting sticker shock at the grocery store. Just take that effect and add in anxiety over ending up in the ER if you risk it with the less safe version because it's cheaper​.”

For manufacturers to reduce unexpected allergic reactions, there’s at least one obvious solution. “Manufacturing in separate facilities - to guarantee no cross-contamination - is the gold standard.

Some companies that produce allergen-free foods also are going a step further and having testing labs on the manufacturing floor - by spot sampling batches for allergens, they feel that they can guarantee their products will be safe​.”

As well as food products, EpiPens can increase financial burdens. According to the charity Spare Pens in Schools, schools in the UK must buy spare Adrenaline auto-injectors (AAIs) as a retail item, and pharmacies are not required to provide them. There are no funds by either central or local authorities to cover these costs.

Mystery of the modern world

The number of allergies are growing around the world, many of them deadly. But no one knows why for sure, even though there are a wide range of theories.

Macphail lists a few of what she believes are the most likely causes. “It's a combination of factors, but definitely includes: changes to our eating habits (less fibre, more fat and sugar) that have changed our gut microbiomes; use of antibiotics, also changing our microbiomes; less exposure to "friendly" bacteria and viruses than in the past, linked to our overuse of heavy detergents and antimicrobial products; more exposure to pollutants and chemicals that our ancient immune systems wouldn't have had to contend with; and maybe even our sedentary lifestyles leading to less vitamin D from sunlight. It's probably ALL these things​.”

In the end, it’s the theory regarding ‘the microbiome and its related barrier hypothesis’ that has the most traction in the scientific world, we were told. “The idea that the immune cells lining our barriers (skin, intestines, respiratory tract) are not getting the right admixture of friendly bacteria, viruses, fungi, and thus not being ‘trained’ normally​.”

As well as a rise in the number of allergies, more allergens have been added to the list. “The big 8 food allergens are milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans​,” Macphail told us.

But the big news in the last decade is that we added sesame to that list. And now we've got a problem with alpha-gal in red meat being triggered by the Lone Star tick bites in some folks​.”

Bites from the lone star tick, identified by the white spot on its back, have been linked to the development of alpha-gal syndrome, which causes possibly fatal allergic reactions from eating red meat, some animal products, and some pharmaceuticals.

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