6% of UK adults have a food allergy

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The Patterns and Prevalence of Adult Food Allergy (PAFA) report, published in May 2024 by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has found that around 6% of the UK adult population are estimated to have a clinically confirmed food allergy. This equates to around 2.4 million people.

Food allergy, also known as hypersensitivity, is caused by a type of antibody molecule called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) which is usually developed to help the body fight parasitic infections like malaria. In some individuals, the body starts to produce IgE to environmental agents, like pollen, dust, and food, causing allergies. The PAFA study investigated how many adults have an IgE-mediated food allergy in the UK.

The project found that more than 30% of adults report living with symptoms of food hypersensitivity; an unpleasant reaction as a result of consuming a particular food. There are different types of food hypersensitivity including a food allergy, food intolerance and coeliac disease. When this was investigated further through a clinical assessment, it was found that around 6% of the UK adult population (2.4 million people) are estimated to have a clinically confirmed food allergy.

The research was funded by the FSA and carried out by the University of Manchester, in conjunction with Manchester University NHS Foundation, Amsterdam University Medical Centre, University of Southampton and Isle of Wight NHS Trust. It involved a community survey which took place in Manchester and two cohort studies from Manchester and Isle of Wight.

Food allergies and hypersensitivity – key findings for UK adults:

– Foods such as peanuts and tree nuts like hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds, are most likely to cause an allergic reaction.
– Many individuals also had allergies to fresh fruits such as apple, peach and kiwi fruit. These were associated with allergies to birch pollen, also known as pollen-food allergy syndrome or oral allergy syndrome.
– Allergies to foods like milk, fish, shrimp and mussels were uncommon.
– Childhood food allergies persist into early adulthood, and then further increase with around half of food allergies developing in later adulthood. Key risk factors for childhood onset food allergy were early onset eczema, co-existing asthma or hayfever.
– Many of the individuals were found to have food allergies that were caused by several different foods

Professor Robin May, Chief Scientific Advisor at the Food Standards Agency said:

“The PAFA report is significant in helping us identify how food allergies evolve between childhood and adulthood, as well as providing vital insights into links between certain types of foods and the persistence of allergies into adulthood. Through this research, we can see patterns such as the emergence of plant-based allergies affecting more people into adulthood which is important for us to consider as we’ve seen the food system move towards plant-based diets and alternative proteins. The FSA remains committed to ensuring that consumers have clear and accurate allergen labelling to support people in the UK living with a food allergy.  This report will help guide our future work on allergens to ensure everyone can enjoy food that is safe.”  

The Patterns and Prevalence of Adult Food Allergy project was set up to provide a step-change in our understanding of food allergy in adulthood by determining its prevalence in the adult population. Its aim was to provide data to allow the trajectories of the condition in relation to both persistent allergy from childhood and adult-onset food allergy to be described, together with adverse reactions to foods that are not mediated by Immunoglobulin E (IgE).

Read the FSA’s news release and the full report [pdf]

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