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Risks, research and rewards for increasing numbers of people living with food allergies

A green salad with tomato, and cucumber is being sprinkled with allergen free vegan cheese crumbles.
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VPM News Focal Point
Food allergies are on the rise in the United States and finding something safe to eat can be challenging for some.

Researchers, advocates and those living with food allergies speak about the challenges. 

As a survivor of childhood brain cancer, Caitie Maharg says her professional path in life was decided early.

“The food was terrible,” she said. Maharg was speaking about the cuisine provided to her during many hospital stays, describing it as inedible. That is when she contemplated becoming a professional chef so that she could use food to bring more joy into people’s lives.

Maharg has appeared three times on the Food Network. Her first appearance was as a contestant on Guy’s Grocery Games. She won $16,000 for that episode, which helped fund the adoption of her first child, Isaiah. Caitie and her husband, Nathan, noticed immediately that Isaiah had food allergy issues.

“He had struggles with eating formula, and he was put on special formula. He had horrible eczema, which they said a lot of times can be a sign that the baby has a peanut allergy,” Caitie Maharg said. “We started at a very young age with him testing him for allergens.”

The Williamsburg couple has since confirmed that Isaiah, now 5 years old, has a number of life-threatening food allergies, as well as a condition known as eosinophilic esophagitis — which can constrict the throat during swallowing. Being vigilant about everything that Isaiah eats is critical for his survival.

For Kristin Osborne of Virginia Beach, the realization that her children had food allergies was also life-altering: All of her three sons are allergic to certain foods. She and husband Patrick, who also has food allergies, recalled how they discovered their middle child was also impacted.

“David, he's about 1, 2, something like that. And she said that he wasn't breathing, right? He was drooling. So, I put him in the car seat so we could take him to the doctor,” said Patrick.

Kristin Osborne said David was tested for various food allergies, including dairy, eggs and wheat.

“I remember getting the phone call from the nurse thinking it was just one of the three. And she said, ‘No, it's all three.’ I remember thinking, ‘What do I feed him?’”

Over the past 20 years, peanut allergies in the United States have more than tripled. And it’s not just peanuts. Tree nuts, shellfish, wheat, soy, gluten, dairy, eggs — all of these are harmful or even deadly for increasing numbers of Americans. Adult-onset allergies are becoming more common, as well.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 8% of adults and 11% of children have food allergies. The percentage for children has doubled over two decades. Individuals, families and researchers are all looking for answers. Some are finding breakthroughs in how to be free of food allergies or how to live with them more easily.

At the University of Virginia, researchers are working on solving a medical mystery. Dr. Jonathan Hemler is a pediatric allergy specialist. He treats Maharg’s son Isaiah and many others using immunotherapy, a technique for increasing the types of foods they can consume safely.

When asked why there’s an increase in food allergies in America, Hemler said there are many theories. One is the hygiene hypothesis.

“We are using our hand sanitizers and soaps and detergents, and we're just very clean. Our bodies aren't exposed to the microbes that they should be exposed to, in order to kind of keep your GI tract functioning properly,” said Hemler.

He described a process of detergents breaking down parts of the gastrointestinal tract in such a way that the body might begin to reject food items that enter it.

Another possibility is the overuse of antibiotics adversely impacting the immune system. And another interesting theory is that planned births are problematic. “There's actually a study going on now looking at kids that are born traditionally, and then kids that are born C- section and seeing the difference in allergy prevalence, because those kids aren't initially exposed to the bacteria in the birth canal that they should be.”

According to Hemler, while the goal of pinpointing a cause is important, it’s equally crucial to find ways for people with food allergies to live more comfortably and safely despite the dietary dangers they face.

Caitie Maharg and Kristin Osborne have certainly embraced that philosophy, each in her own way. As Isaiah begins his schooling, Caitie Maharg works out in advance when the class is having special treats so she can make an allergy-free version so her child never feels left out.

And now, Maharg has taken her culinary skills into the entrepreneurial realm to help both her child and others who grapple daily with the restrictions and challenges of eating safely.

In 2022, she started No Nuts Donuts. The varieties of gourmet doughnuts she bakes are free of allergens and safe for people who might not have many opportunities to enjoy such treats.

“I was like, you know what? Isaiah has never had a doughnut — and nowhere we went made doughnuts that were safe for him. I was like, ‘I'm going to tweak around with some of these recipes and see what I can come up with.’"

No Nuts Donuts makes cake doughnuts and fried yeast doughnuts. Isaiah is probably its biggest fan, according to his mother.

Kristin Osborne takes special care to ensure her family meals are healthy, allergen-free and enjoyable to eat. And she teaches her sons how to read labels carefully and how to cook for themselves, so she has peace of mind when they leave the house.

Osborne has also become an allergy education activist. As founder of Virginia Food Allergy Advocates, she works closely with other families and organizations affected by individuals with food allergies. Increasingly, schools must be informed stewards to safeguard at-risk students.

In Virginia Beach Public Schools, for example, Health Services Coordinator Heidi Sowala says more than 3,000 children in the division have some sort of allergy. While the school stocks life-saving epinephrine pens, Osborne wanted to pursue a safety plan for when students are between school and home.

Working with the VBPS, they enacted a training program for all district bus drivers so they can correctly administer EpiPens to students who carry them in their backpacks.

Maharg and Osborne both hope that more people will become more aware and careful with food preparation and sharing. More specifically, Maharg wants to improve awareness of life-threatening dietary restrictions that might be considered passing fads.

“Sometimes people think ‘Oh, gluten-free, that's just a trend,’” she said. “And for so many people, it's not a trend. It's a matter of life or death.”

Watch VPM News Focal Point on the PBS App.

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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