The last time Arielle Olson took a bite of fish she wound up in the emergency room.
But today, under medical supervision, she's trying it again in what's known in the food allergy universe as a "challenge": a test to see if maybe now, at age 7, she's outgrown her potentially lethal reaction to one of our healthiest sources of protein.
Since their children were small, the Olson's have avoided fish, eggs and all dairy products and peanuts as they discovered that both of their children — Arielle and Greg — are members of what's become an exponentially expanding part of the population: kids with food allergies, reports CBS Sunday Morning contributor Elizabeth Kaledin.
"They may have to go to the hospital simply from eating the wrong food, and, I mean, they could die," admits Lisa Olson, the children's mother.
Dr. Robert Wood, a pediatric allergist at the Johns Hopkins University Children's Center, is the Olson's doctor and a leading expert on the phenomenon.
Wood said it takes nearly eight months to get an appointment at his clinic. "It's gotten absolutely insane," he said.
According to Wood, the incidence of food allergy has doubled in the last five to 10 years — tripled in the last 20. He said that overall, 6-7 percent of young children and 3-4 percent of teenagers and adults. "These are huge numbers," Wood said. Added to that, roughly 150 Americans die each year from food allergies.
The diagnosis of a food allergy can be terrifying for any parent.
"You will fear that your child is going to die every day. When you send them to a birthday party, even though you've taken all the right precautions, in the back of your mind is the notion that this food allergy could kill them," Wood said. "That's actually an overwhelming thing for families to have in the back of their mind, day in day out."
Peanut allergies get most of the attention, but allergies to tree nuts; like almonds and walnuts, plus eggs, dairy, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish are all increasingly common.
In general, Wood said, humans are more allergic to everything.
Scientists cannot exactly agree on why. There is no one size fits all theory, but there is a leading explanation called the hygiene hypothesis.
Simply put: human beings have become too clean.
We don't live on farms, we have smaller families, we have conquered most disease with vaccines and good health care so over the generations our bodies have evolved to consider certain foods to be the enemy.
"The less your immune system is exposed to germs or infections very early in life, the more time it has to focus on things like allergy," Wood said. "When you go to underdeveloped countries they don't have allergy. It's not just that they don't recognize it, they really don't have allergy."
With food allergies on the rise, eating out has become a recipe for disaster and restaurants around the country are cooking up ways to cope.
Celebrity chef Ming Tsai is tackling the issue with the same energy he uses to whip up a batch of his famous Pad Thai.
His Boston-area restaurant happily accommodates anyone with any allergy.
Lynne Smith, who is allergic to wheat and gluten products, is a regular.
"What's nice about coming to the Blue Ginger is on the menu it says if you have any food allergies you tell your server," Smith said.
Tsai and his staff rely on what he calls his "food bible" — a complete list of ingredients in every one of his dishes and the leading allergens.
Tsai also has personal reasons for wanting to make restaurants food-allergy friendly — his 6-year-old son, David, is allergic to many things.
But he's also determined to undo what he perceives to be diet discrimination.
"If you have an allergy, you can't dine in a restaurant. I mean that's so silly," Tsai said.
While the country struggles to understand and accept, the Olson's are taking it one day, and one food, at a time.
They're hoping that all the tests and trials going on to find ways to treat and maybe even prevent food allergies will one day soon provide at least a taste of relief.
"We really believe that in the next 10 to 20 year time frame we are gonna figure this out," Dr. Wood said. "And for everyone who can't outgrow the food allergy on their own there will be a treatment that will at least make the allergy less dangerous."
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