Food Allergies on Campus

According to studies conducted by the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, more than 40 percent of children in the U.S. have experienced a severe allergic reaction to a food item they have consumed one or more times. On an annual basis, about one in five of these children end up in an emergency room to treat the reaction.

When a child (or adult) suffers a severe allergic reaction to food, it typically means that their blood pressure drops significantly, lips turn blue, and the body goes limp. According to one mother whose child is allergic to seven different food items, “it's like watching your child drowning.”

While treatments are being introduced that can help minimize allergic reactions to some foods, what most doctors tell parents and adults with food allergies is to just avoid eating the “trigger foods.” This includes the food items that contain these ingredients: Milk/dairy products; eggs; peanuts; tree nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and pecans; soy; wheat and other grains with gluten; fish; and shellfish.

Most parents can take comfort in the fact that, historically, children tend to outgrow food allergies by the time they turn 4 or 5. However, that does not appear to be happening as much anymore.

In fact, many young adults—for instance, those attending college on campuses around the country—who report they have never experienced a food allergy in the past, are finding themselves being diagnosed with one after the age of 18. Why this happens is not clear; however, these “late-blooming” food allergies often become a lifelong problem.

Missing Trigger Foods
We mentioned that, currently, the best option the medical world suggests to avoid having an allergic reaction to a food is to avoid trigger foods. But, what if someone is following these instructions carefully and still has a reaction?

Very often, this is because the food item was manufactured or processed in a commercial kitchen where one of the trigger foods was also being used. Because of this, some food labels now include precautionary warnings or advisories indicating that the food item “may contain” traces of soy or peanuts, for instance, or one of the other trigger food ingredients.

These warnings may be found on grab-and-go foods as well as food prepared and served in college cafeterias or marketed in grocery stores. However, this is a voluntary practice and not required under current labeling regulations in the U.S.

It is because these precautionary warnings are voluntary and not always printed on food labels that many people have an allergic reaction to a food item, even though it is not a designated trigger food. Further, some food labels will reference ingredients in a food, but the consumer may be unaware those ingredients contain milk or soy, for example. This can also result in an allergic reaction.

Food Allergies on the Increase
There is one more thing we need to know about food allergies: the number of people in the U.S. visiting an emergency room or needing to see a doctor due to an allergic reaction to a consumed food is rising dramatically. This is the conclusion of FAIR Health, an independent, nonprofit organization that collects data based on health insurance claims.

FAIR Health found that in 2007, just 4.6 percent of the visits to doctors and emergency rooms were the result of severe food reactions. By 2016, that number had jumped to more than 22 percent. This means nearly one-fourth of all emergency room and doctor’s visits are attributed to some sort of food allergy.

According to researchers Christina Ciaccio and Cathy Nagler from the University of Chicago, one of the critical reasons for this—and one that may be causing more of today’s college-aged adults to have food allergies—is that “we have essentially given our children allergies by being too good at keeping them safe.”

They believe the use of antibiotics and vaccines introduced in the past two or three decades have played a key role in causing this situation. While these drugs and vaccines have certainly helped cure disease and keep all of us healthier, they do have a downside. The immune systems of many children and college students are not being challenged as they were years ago—a challenge that made them more able to ward off disease as well as allergic reactions.

Ciaccio and Nagler also point to the following reasons why more younger people appear to be experiencing food allergies:

  • Antibiotics typically cure by helping eradicate harmful bacteria, but they also can destroy the good bacteria that empowers the immune system.
  • Manufacturers may coat products with triclosan, an antibacterial agent that can also eliminate good bacteria.
  • Many of today’s college-aged adults did not play outdoors as their parents did. Instead, they played indoors using all types of electronic devices. When young people play outdoors, they are more often exposed to germs and bacteria that can help strengthen their immune systems.
  • The American diet has changed considerably over the years. For many children, grains, veggies, and fruits are out, replaced with sodas and sugary products that feed the harmful bacteria and not the good.

Addressing Food Allergies on Campus
Because food allergies appear to be on the increase, one of the things that college administrators and food service personnel can do to help prevent (or at least minimize) these reactions is to take advantage of what are called “menu management systems.” Introduced several years ago, at least one of these systems can analyze more than 60 individual nutrients in food items, helping food workers locate and identify food allergens. Further, those systems that are cloud-based can share this information instantly with other food service operations on the campus, as well as satellite campuses, throughout a state or the country, all at the same time.

Administrators are also encouraged to integrate menu management systems with cloud-based printers. This allows allergen-related information to be placed on all food labels at all college locations in real time.

Finally, administrators should encourage students to read food labels to help protect their health. In fact, they should follow one of the recommendations that Kids With Food Allergies, a division of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, has for parents: read “every food label, every time.”


About the Author

Jill Carte is category manager of food safety at DayMark Safety Systems, a manufacturer of menu management and food-labeling systems that help the food service industry efficiently label food products. She can be reached through the company website at