A junk food diet of burgers, pizzas and chips may be causing food allergies in children, according to new research.
Junk food contains chemicals that can cause a potentially fatal reaction to eggs, peanuts, milk or other products.
Known as AGEs (Advanced glycation end products), they are formed when proteins or fats react with sugar. This can happen naturally and during the cooking process.
They have already been linked to metabolic conditions such obesity and type-2 diabetes – as well as Alzheimer’s disease.
Now a study presented at an European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition meeting in Glasgow has linked them to food allergy in children.
It means parents should be wary of how much processed food their kids are consuming.
A processed food has been altered in some way during its preparation. This can be via freezing, canning, baking or drying.
Examples include breakfast cereals, pastries, crisps, microwave meals, cakes, biscuits and bread.
Principal investigator Dr Roberto Berni Canani, of the University of Naples ‘Federico II’, said: “As of yet, existing hypotheses and models of food allergy do not adequately explain the dramatic increase observed in the last years – so dietary AGEs may be the missing link.
“Our study certainly supports this hypothesis, we now need further research to confirm it.”
Around seven percent of children in the UK have food allergies and, as the tragic case of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse showed, they can kill in rare instances.
In July 2016, Natasha collapsed on a flight from London to Nice, suffering a fatal allergic reaction to a baguette bought from Pret a Manger.
At an inquest, the court heard how Natasha, who was 15 and had multiple severe food allergies, had carefully checked the ingredients on the packet.
Sesame seeds – which were in the bread dough, the family later found out – were not listed.
In the study Dr Canani and colleagues observed 61 children aged between six and 12 years old who were split into three groups – one with food allergies, another with respiratory allergies and a third healthy controls.
As expected, blood samples found those who ate the most junk food had higher levels of AGEs.
But the food allergy sufferers had more than those children with respiratory allergies or no allergies at all.
In addition, the researchers found compelling evidence relating to the mechanism of action elicited by AGEs in causing food allergy.
AGEs are proteins or lipids that become glycated after exposure to sugars and are present at high levels in junk foods.
They are derived from sugars, processed foods, microwaved foods and roasted or barbequed meats.
AGEs are already known to play a role in the development and progression of different oxidative-based diseases including diabetes, hardening of the arteries and neurological disorders – including dementia.
But this is the first time an association has been found between AGEs and food allergy.
While firm statistics on global food allergy prevalence are lacking, there is growing evidence incidence is on the increase, especially amongst young children.
Prevalence is reported to be as high as ten percent in some countries. Similarly, over recent decades there has been a dramatic increase in the consumption of highly-processed foods.
These are known to contain higher levels of AGEs. Highly-processed foods have been reported as comprising up to half of total daily energy intake in European countries.
Dr Canani said: “If this link is confirmed, it will strengthen the case for national governments to enhance public health interventions to restrict junk food consumption in children.”
Isabel Proano, director of policy and communications at the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients’ Associations (EFA), added: “These new findings show there are still many environmental and dietary issues affecting our health and wellbeing.
“Healthcare professionals and patients do not have all of the important information to face a disease that dramatically impacts their quality of life, and industrialised food processing and labelling gaps will not help them.
“We call on the public health authorities to enable better prevention and care of food allergy.”