Allergies and Autism: Something in the Food, Water, Air?

Image courtesy of (Serge Bertasius Photography) / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There’s growing alarm at the increasing rates of physical and intellectual health issues affecting children – specifically in two areas, food allergies and autism.While not directly related, there are some who believe there may be environmental and resultant genetic causes behind the spikes.

Food – including the diets of children and what is in the food we serve them – has been shown to play a role in both areas, allergies the most obvious.

Let’s be clear from the start – we’re in no way suggesting a food link to autism. But, as some formidable research has found, revisions to diet can help in the treatment of the condition.

As well, there is strong evidence that food additives and some dyes in foods are related to changes in child behavior. Something – and it could well be what we and our children are eating, drinking or breathing – has resulted in a dramatic jump in food allergies in our children. Is it in the food we’ve been eating and feeding our children for the past several decades of processed foods? No one seems to know, definitively, but one thing is clear, it’s a growing problem.

EpiPen Auto Injector, photo by Greg Friese.
EpiPen Auto Injector, photo by Greg Friese.

Food allergies are a growing food safety and public health concern that affect an estimated four to six percent of children in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Allergic reactions can be life-threatening and have far-reaching effects on children and their families, as well as on the schools or early care and education programs they attend.

The CDC found, in 2007, the last period for which numbers were tabulated by the center, food allergies among children spiked significantly.

“In 2007, the reported food allergy rate among all children younger than 18 years was 18 percent higher than in 1997. During the 10-year period 1997 to 2006, food allergy rates increased significantly among both preschool-aged and older children.”

Overall, the CDC noted the numbers continue to climb, but the causes remain unclear. Four in every 100 kids are affected by food allergies.

  • In 2007, approximately three million children under age 18 years (3.9 percent) were reported to have a food or digestive allergy in the previous 12 months.
  • From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of reported food allergy increased 18 percent among children under the age of 18.
  • Children with a food allergy are two to four times more likely to have other related conditions such as asthma and other allergies, compared with children without food allergies.
  • From 2004 to 2006, there were approximately 9,500 hospital discharges per year with a diagnosis related to food allergy among children under age 18 years.

The medical community has an array of Web-based resources and one, Medscape, a compendium of studies, reports and articles on a wide spectrum of health issues, has an extensive look at environmental risk factors for the increase in food allergies among children.

“It is generally assumed that food allergy and respiratory allergies have more or less the same causes both with regard to genetics and environmental factors. This is probably true to a considerable degree, but it is clearly not total, and nor has the relationship been shown conclusively. This review summarizes some of the recently published research related to genetic and environmental factors that might affect the development of food allergy.”

The search for causes in the spike of allergies is intensifying and there are some theories, including the following by researcher and paediatric allergy professor Bengt Björkstén, of Sweden:

It may be true, although it is yet to be shown, that food allergies in early childhood are becoming more common and that the causes are the same as for later-developing respiratory allergies. The mother not only transfers 50 percent of her genes to her baby, but she is also the exclusive environment during gestation and continues to be a major environmental factor while breast-feeding her infant. Non-genetic maternal influences increasing the likelihood of food allergy include Caesarian section and high maternal age. Allergy to sesame seems to be increasing in children. This is possibly a consequence of increased use in processed foods. The search for dietary risk factors is not limited to allergenic foods, but may include other nutrients, for example excessive intake of vitamins.

On the learning disability front, the CDC released some alarming figures in the past few weeks.

In a report released March 24, the CDC found the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) almost doubled in the period between 2000 and 2012.

About 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. [Read article]

  • ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.
  • ASD is almost five times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189).
  • Studies in Asia, Europe, and North America have identified individuals with ASD with an average prevalence of about one percent. A study in South Korea reported a prevalence of 2.6 percent.
  • About one in six children in the United States had a developmental disability in 2006-2008, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism.
Image courtesy of (Sura Nualpradid) / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of (Sura Nualpradid) / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Environmental and diet modifications don’t only benefit those with food allergies, many studies have found. The Autism Services Foundation reports research has shown modification of a child’s diet can have profound effects on the severity of a child’s symptoms of ASD.

The foundation reports that, when done correctly, diet therapy makes other treatments more effective, has no side effects, and may decrease the need for drugs.

“Depending on your child’s age, the degree of impairment, and compliance with the program the results can be dramatic. The diet is not a magic cure; it requires full commitment, but benefits are worth it for many families. Typically improvements emerge across several areas: Bowel function, potty training, eating behavior, self-care, sleep, hyperactivity, eye contact, aggressive or injurious behavior, perseverance/rigidity, language skills, and social skills. Sensory sensitivities may diminish as well. In actuality, younger children may revert to normal, while older ones may see improvement in all areas.

Food additives have long been suspected by alternative medicine and those who advocate an organic, even vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, as having causative effects for a variety of illnesses.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest specifically has flagged commonly used food dyes, such as Yellow 5, Red 40, and six others, that are made from petroleum and pose, according to the Centre, a “rainbow of risks” including hyperactivity in children, cancer (in animal studies), and allergic reactions. In 2008, because of the problem of hyperactivity, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of these dyes. The British government and European Union have taken actions that are virtually ending the use of dyes throughout Europe.

Food dyes also serve to deceive consumers: they are often used to simulate the presence of healthful, colorful fruits and vegetables. But considering the adverse impact of these chemicals on children, and considering how easily they can be replaced with safe, natural ingredients, it’s time to get rid of them altogether from the United States and Canada.

The non-profit group notes an example is Kellog’s ubiquitous Nutri Grain bars. The popular strawberry variety is made with artificial colors in the U.S. and Canada but with beet-based reds, vegetable and paprika dyes in the United Kingdom.

In 2009, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest published a paper updating the latest round of studies of effects of food additives and food dyes on children.

The results were enough to bring at least one august American health journal to admit its previous theories on such matters may have been grossly out of whack.

As the Center reported, the editors of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal, AAP Grand Rounds, stated, after reviewing findings of one British study that clearly showed serious effects form a variety of food additives and dyes on the behavior and health of children:

“Thus, the overall findings of the study are clear and require that even we skeptics, who have long doubted parental claims of the effects of various foods on the behavior of their children admit we might have been wrong.”

One thing is clear, what we are feeding our children and ourselves is having a profound effect on our health and that of our children, both physically and intellectually.

It’s now imperative that resources be directed to more precisely finding out what those issues are with our food and how we can change it before rates of more childhood illnesses start spiking.

About the author


Chris Malette

Chris Malette is a retired newspaper journalist with 35 years of experience as a reporter and city editor. Over his career, Malette covered municipal and federal politics, military, health and court beats. He has reported from Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and covered relief efforts in Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He now works for SPN News as an editorial columnist.