Allergies and intolerances: causes, consequences, solutions

Allergies and intolerances are tending to become increasingly prevalent, as explained in this 2018 Alter’Native Food conference talk.

Allergies and intolerances worldwide: why such growth?

From a sociological point of view, allergies and intolerances complicate meal-taking as a community, particularly on special occasions such as parties, when one of the participants may have special needs.

Trends and developments

In France, 17% of consumers avoid lactose

In France, 17% of consumers avoid lactose

Allergies and intolerances have tended to become of increasing concern in recent times, with them really coming under the spotlight toward the end of the first decade of this century. It is a topic that gets more and more media coverage, all around the world, predominantly relating to allergies to foods such as milk, eggs or peanuts.

When consumers are questioned, they describe themselves as allergic or intolerant and say they avoid certain products in far higher proportions than the medical tests would suggest. In France, the proportion of individuals who avoid products containing lactose is, for example, 17%. The “free-from” products market is strongly expanding globally, with growth rates of between 5 and 10%.

What is the sociological approach?

Sociologists and anthropologists put forward a certain number of causes for explaining the boom in allergies and intolerances from a consumer point of view.

  • It may be a new marker of social distinction, since food has always served this purpose. The fact of consuming “free-from” products may therefore be a differentiation strategy.
  • The individualisation of diets serves to reinforce religious and cultural identities.
  • The phenomenon is quite commonly perceived among people who have made a self-diagnosis.
  • It offers a way of resisting the industrial system and returning to food processes based on common sense.
  • It also offers an antidote to the anxiety generated by endless choice.
  • The desire to retake control over what we eat could also be a factor.

What are the solutions and the avenues for improvement?

In terms of supply, the approaches for addressing these allergies and intolerances are increasingly global, and the brands now propose products excluding different allergens all at the same time. Tools have also been developed to help allergic people to identify the meals that they may or may not eat.

Applications are developed in France based on Open Food Facts data, enabling product barcodes to be scanned and the identification of products that can be consumed without risk. It is also possible to envisage scanners that would provide access to the nutritional composition of products before consuming them. Yet, for now, these solutions remain fairly expensive and are not fully mature.

The science is also being developed for better understanding allergies or intolerance, and providing a remedy for them. This could make it possible, for example, for people allergic to peanuts to consume specific products without having to go entirely without. Genetic research could also make it possible to solve the problem.


Read also : Decoding the future of food


What is the difference between an allergy and an intolerance?

Allergenic foods

Allergenic foods

Allergies are a common ailment. The WHO ranks it as the fourth most common illness after cancer, cardiovascular disease and AIDS. By 2050, some 50% of the population will be allergic, compared to 2 or 3% in 1970. Back then, the talk would be of “hay fever”, rather than “pollen allergy”.

When a person is allergic, this means that their entire family and circle of friends will tend to consume the same products as he or she. There are 17 million allergic Europeans, including 2.2 million in France, or 8% of the children and 4% of the adults today. Allergies, moreover, are the main cause of anaphylaxis among children aged under 14, and 70% of serious and fatal reactions occur out of the home.

A food allergy is an excessive reaction from the immune system when faced with an element in the environment that is usually inoffensive: the allergen. An intolerance may give rise to similar symptoms, but the same immunity mechanism is not involved, and it does not present a mortal risk, unlike the allergy. An example of this would be lactose intolerance, which involves a lack of enzymes suited to its digestion.

Why are allergies on the increase?

Certain factors may be advanced as generating the increase in food allergies around the world:

  • The modern way of life and changes to our environment.
  • Increasingly hermetic homes, generating more volatile organic compounds; neglecting the habit of indoor ventilation.
  • An increasingly hygienic and sanitised environment; the proliferation of antibiotics, and of cosmetics and cleaning products generating endocrine disrupters; caesarean births cutting off newborns from their mother’s microbiota, which is known to help them develop their immune systems.
  • More and more household pets, the numbers of which have increased by 11% in two years in France.
  • Pollen, global warming lengthening the pollenisation period, outdoor pollution causing irritations.
  • Transformation of agricultural produce for better yield from wheat, increasingly rich in gluten, and affected by pesticides and chemical products.
  • Radical changes to our diets over the past 30 years, with the appearance of exotic, oriental, North African, Asian and Caribbean products containing sesame seed, peanut and soya.

Allergies and intolerances are genuine pathologies, and not consumer choices. For Pascale Couratier: “People [who are allergic or food-intolerant] […] are afraid; there is a genuine fear of consuming a particular product when you are allergic.” This therefore constitutes a major constraint, and our way of life is in part responsible for this increase in allergies and intolerances.

Speakers: Céline Laisney, ALIMAVENIR and Pascale Couratier, AFPRAL

Focus on the French association for the prevention of allergies

The French association for the prevention of allergies (AFPRAL) has been in existence for 25 years and is recognised by the French Ministry of Health. It works on behalf of the public authorities and food industry professionals, alongside the Directorate-General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Prevention of Fraud (DGCCRF) and the European Parliament, in favour of clearer labelling. AFPRAL also offers support and counselling to families.

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