Although more people are gravitating towards healthier snack options, many still reach for those irresistible, highly-processed junk foods. According to a 2018 survey by Statista, 31.6 percent of survey respondents say they eat fast food one to three times per week while 2.7 percent say they eat these meals 10 times or more per week. It’s not just adults eating fast foods — over 90 percent of parents report bringing home a fast food meal for their children in the past week.
At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a near 20-percent increase in food allergies among children under 18 between 2007 and 2017. Junk food consumption and the rise in food allergies might look like a coincidence, but scientists have discovered a missing link that could connect the two together.
The new research presented at the 52nd annual meeting of the European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition is based on levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are compounds normally produced during metabolism. In excess, studies suggest that AGEs can contribute to the development of pathologies like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
In a small study of 61 children having food allergies, respiratory allergies and no allergies, scientists from the University of Naples found that children with food allergies had high levels of AGEs while the same trend wasn’t observed in other groups. The researchers suspect that the AGEs are coming from eating highly-processed foods, which makes up about 50 percent of the total calorie intake of people living in Europe. Highly processed foods are one of the richest sources of AGEs.
“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,” said senior author Roberto Berni Canani in a statement.
Maybe you can cut junk food out of your diet, but AGEs are also found in fatty, protein-rich animal-derived foods such as beef, pork and lamb. The amount of AGEs increases when these foods are microwaved, roasted, barbecued or fried.
In an email to Xtalks, Canani explained how AGEs could be linked to the development of food allergies: one, AGEs could disrupt the protective gut barrier; two, they directly act on the immune system to promote food allergy immune responses. These mechanisms could also explain how adults develop food allergies later in life.
Food allergy appears to be rising globally, and it cannot be attributed to a single dietary factor. Food allergy risk factors include a person’s sex, ethnicity, genetics, microbial exposure and the environment. One study found that children of East Asian or African descent raised in Western countries were at a higher risk of developing food allergies compared to Caucasian children. This finding suggests a complex interaction between genes and the environment in dictating food allergy development. Interestingly, junk food consumption rises as a family’s income rises, possibly leading to higher AGE levels and a greater food allergy risk.
If junk food consumption did not have a bad rep already, they do now. Although more research is needed to confirm the present findings, Canani suggests shifting towards to low-AGEs diet nonetheless.
“A significantly reduced intake of AGEs can be achieved by increasing the consumption of fish, legumes, low-fat milk products, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and by reducing intake of solid fats, fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and highly processed foods,” he advised. “These guidelines are consistent with recommendations by organizations such as the American Heart Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research, and the American Diabetes Association. More efforts should be made by health authorities in limiting the exposure to high levels of dietary AGE [at] the pediatric age.”