By Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD
As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I’ve worked in the area of food allergies in some capacity for most of my career. Over the past 15+ years, I’ve seen research in this area explode. I remember distinctly as a student receiving very little instruction or guidance about this topic. Fast forward and there have already been more than 2,000 published articles and studies on the topics of “food allergy” or “food allergies” in the first three months of 2023, nearly twice the amount of papers in a similar search in the year 2008. This exponential increase in food allergy research and scholarly papers has resulted in a significant increase in understanding about how food allergies develop, can be prevented, and has opened opportunities for potential treatments.
Why have we seen such a rise in food allergy related research? Research is driven by several different factors, including public health problems, researcher interest, and funding availability. In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board, Health and Medicine Division published a report called Finding a Path to Safety in Food Allergy: Assessment of the Global Burden, Causes, Prevention, Management and Public Policy. Although the report deduces that the true prevalence of food allergies is unknown because of the limitations of current research, relying primarily on self-reports, the authors acknowledged the apparent increase in prevalence. In the report’s preface, the issue of food allergies was well described: “Food allergy is a complicated, multifactorial disease whose causes, mechanisms, and effects are not yet fully understood.” The paper went on to describe the lack of basic understanding about how and why food allergies develop, as well as to recommend a framework for future research.
Because there are so many unanswered questions about food allergies, including basic biological mechanisms, environmental and social influences, psychosocial impacts, and potential pharmacological opportunities among others, there is interest in food allergy research from many different areas of study.
Researchers can devote their study to improving diagnostics, better understanding how to manage, improving quality of life, treatment options, or finding a cure.
The support of food allergy research funders, including food allergy advocacy groups like Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), government organizations including National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and other organizations like National Peanut Board, has contributed to a growing body of research. In fact, the National Peanut Board has contributed more than $36 million toward food allergy research, education and outreach. Research to answer the outstanding questions of food allergies can’t happen without financial support. Fortunately, this research has continued to be funded with investment from a variety of sources worldwide. This has led to greater understanding of food allergies and how they develop such as the hygiene hypothesis and dual exposure hypothesis; treatment options like Palforzia, oral immunotherapy for peanut allergies; and our current guidelines for preventing peanut allergies through early introduction of peanut containing foods in infancy.
At the 2023 American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) annual meeting in February, there were more than 50 sessions, courses, seminars, symposiums, and posters dedicated to food allergy. And last fall’s American College of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) included a pre-conference International Food Allergy Symposium. The study of food allergy has come a long way. Thanks to the dedication of researchers, registered dietitians, physicians, psychologists, nurses and other healthcare professionals, study participants and their families, fundraisers, and funders, and all those who support these folks, food allergy research has a strong foundation for future discovery and innovation. While we still have a lot to learn, future research may hold the key to preventing even more food allergies from developing and curing food allergies once they take hold.