Lesley Solomon’s 7-year-old son is allergic to milk, peanuts and tree nuts.
“We live and breathe by labels,” she says. “We buy the same things over and over again because they are tried and true.”
Her son’s safety depends a great deal upon how food companies label their products and how they keep potential allergens from entering products.
“Thank you for being as careful as you possibly can,” she says to the food industry in general.
Ms. Solomon also is asking the food industry to help support a new endeavor. Founded this year, the Food Allergy Science Initiative will be centered at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge. Initial supporters have committed about $10 million, including $3 million from the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation, a privately-funded family foundation in Newton, Mass.
“If the food industry got behind this, it would be so amazing to see them support this effort,” Ms. Solomon says.
She said that, through research, foods currently not found in the homes of people with allergens might be safe to be there again one day. Her home has neither nuts nor milk in it.
“My hope is one day we will be able to have these foods in our homes again, but we’ve got a lot of work to do before we get there,” she says.
The Food Allergy Science Initiative will explore the biological mechanisms behind food allergens and seek to develop new diagnostics and treatments. One area of research will focus on the mechanisms of allergen sensing, such as the body determining how to react to different food components and determining whether they are healthy or harmful.
Other areas of research are the cellular landscape of the gut, immune response to allergens, the role of microbiota in food allergy, and clinical and translational projects.
About 8% of American children suffer from food allergies, according to the Broad Institute. The prevalence of food allergies among American children up to age 17 increased to 5.1% in 2009-11 from 3.4% in 1997-99, according to a May 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.
Ruslan M. Medzhitov, Ph.D., the David W. Wallace professor of immunology at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., will lead research at the Food Allergy Science Initiative.
An imbalance in the immune system may cause allergies, he says.
“What can lead to imbalance is both the presence of something that wasn’t meant to be there or the absence of something that was meant to be there,” he says.
He says the increasing rate of American children with allergies might stem from changes in the environment.
“There are many things that go into the modern environment,” Dr. Medzhitov says.
Both hygiene products and food products are examples. A hygiene hypothesis is that the increasing use of hygiene products has reduced people’s exposure to microbes.
“Because we are not exposed to enough microbial challenges, now the immune system is going haywire and starts to react to things it shouldn’t be reacting to, like substances in the food or in the air,” Dr. Medzhitov says.
For food products, research will focus on various artificial substances added to food in recent years, such as for reasons of preservation and taste modification.
The elimination of natural substances in food also might play a role.
“It’s more of my hunch more than anything else at this point,” he says.
He said the immune system possibly was meant to encounter chemicals naturally found in whole foods. Industrial production of refined foods accidentally might take out those chemicals.
“Just like we have reduced exposure to microbes, we now might be experiencing the consequences of reduced exposure to chemicals that are normally found in natural foods and also in whole foods,” Dr. Medzhitov says. “That is the unappreciated, unrecognized factor that I feel might be very important here although we don’t have any evidence for it yet. It is something that we will be investigating.”
Besides Dr. Medzhitov, other scientific leaders for the Food Allergy Science Initiative will come from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Ms. Solomon, who works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and three other mothers helped to create the initiative. One of the mothers, Christine Olsen, M.D., works at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Mothers of children with allergies tend to communicate.
“Whenever there’s a change, or whenever there’s a problem, it kind of goes out across the mom blogs on-line,” Ms. Solomon says. “When one company starts to add peanut flour into their products, everyone knows, everyone talks about it. Whenever there is cross-contamination, everyone knows, everyone talks about it.”
Mothers also will relay how a company’s customer service representative responds to a call. Ms. Solomon said she once called Unilever customer service and asked about any potential for cross-contamination in Popsicle products. The person on the phone walked her through the company’s process to avoid cross-contamination, such as by explaining how the lines operated and how they were cleaned.
“It was amazing,” Ms. Solomon says.