Could junk food be to blame for the rise in allergies?

Children with food allergies had elevated levels of a substance found in processed foods, a new study claims

The World Health Organisation attributes half a million deaths each year to the intake of industrially produced trans fats. Ravindranath K / The National
The World Health Organisation attributes half a million deaths each year to the intake of industrially produced trans fats. Ravindranath K / The National

Burgers, chips, hot dogs, deli meats – heavily processed foods are a staple among western diets, as well as increasingly in the Middle East. Now, a new study has found this could be one reason why food allergies are on the rise.

A small study by researchers in Italy found children with food allergies have higher levels of advanced glycation endproducts, or AGEs, than those in healthy children without allergies.

No difference was found in children with respiratory allergies, but the team did find children with higher levels of AGEs ate more food containing the substances.

What are AGEs?

These substances occur naturally in the body, but are found in high levels in processed foods, as well as other food sources such as cooked meats. They are proteins or lipids that become 'glycated' as a result of exposure to sugars, and can be a factor in ageing. Having high levels of AGEs in the body, potentially a result of eating AGE-rich foods, has previously been linked to the development of degenerative diseases, such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer's disease.

The rise in food allergies

Studies have long shown that food allergies in western countries, such as the UK and US, are on the rise. For instance, data published by NHS Digital shows incidents of anaphylactic shock in England due to adverse food reactions rose steadily between 2011 and 2017, reports The Guardian.

However, it seems the problem is not only limited to the western world. The National recently reported that food allergies are also rising in the UAE. It has been suggested that this is because of what doctors have called the “over-hygienic environment”. Sesame seeds are becoming one of the most common triggers.

“In the past, we used to think food allergies were just in western countries, but this is not applicable any more,” said Dr Hamad Alhameli, consultant of paediatric and adolescent medicine and an allergy consultant at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.

Could it be the junk food?

“[Children] are consuming a lot of snacks, a lot of hamburgers, a lot of French fries, a lot of commercial foods full of AGEs,” said Roberto Berni Canani of the University of Naples, who led the research, which was presented at the annual meeting of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition in Glasgow.

Children's diets were assessed through food diaries over the course of seven days.

Canani said children with food allergies ate between 20 and 40 per cent more junk food in the week than allergy-free children did. They also had higher levels of AGEs.

The research suggested AGEs may interact with immune cells and negatively impact the gut.

However, the study was too small to prove conclusive, having involved just 61 children; 23 with food allergies, 16 with respiratory allergies and 22 with no allergies.

Canani also added that other factors are thought to impact the rise in food allergies, including issues with the gut microbiome.

Updated: June 8, 2019 11:01 AM


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