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Food Allergy Sufferers Want Clearer Food Labels. New Research May Help

Thirteen-year-old Kai Yee suffers from a variety of food allergies and his mom Heather has had to make many things from scratch. They are hopeful research will lead to Kai being able to taste more foods.

Just as we are digesting new developments on food allergies, others come out. Headlines include, "Milk Is Overtaking Nuts As Top Food Allergy Threat." And "Congress Makes Sesame Ninth Major Food Allergen." With so much to keep track of, The National Academy of Sciences is recommending current labeling be replaced. One University of Cincinnati researcher has information that may help.

Kai Yee's family is watching this and other news that may help the teen who is allergic to dairy, eggs, wheat, tree nuts and peanuts.

Wyoming, Ohio, middle schooler Kai is used to talking about all his food allergies and taking extra time to prepare what he eats. "It's not that difficult once you get the hang of it," he says.

WVXU interviewed Kai and his mom Heather seven years ago. They maintain a positive attitude. "We ebb and flow as well as keeping up on all of the research," Heather says. "I felt when we spoke last we knew everything that was happening. And then for a little while there we had to take a break for our own mental wellness. I do believe one day he will be able to eat more. There's always a bit of hopefulness."

Six million Americans suffer from peanut allergies. Some have a mild rash, others could go into anaphylaxis shock. Some might be helped by more specific food labeling, like what The National Academy of Sciences is recommending. The agency wants the current labeling approach to be replaced with one that takes into account how much of an allergen is needed to cause a reaction and how much is in a specific food.

Australia, New Zealand and some countries in Europe already do it.

Credit Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand.
Lynne Haber, Ph.D, shown in front of the UC College of Medicine.

For consumers who can tolerate a minimal amount of peanut protein, new labeling may help. University of Cincinnati College of Medicine Senior Toxicologist Lynn Haber, Ph.D., is out with a new study.

"So what we did was calculate a dose that would be resulting in a reaction of a very small percentage of people - 481 - who are allergic, and we used conservative health protective approaches to do that," Haber says. "And our hope is that food companies and regulatory agencies will consider our work together with information from other studies in improving labeling in food packaging."

For some, it didn't take much to elicit an allergic response. In 1% of patients with peanut allergies, the dose calculated was .052 milligrams, about the weight of a single grain of salt. The eliciting dose for 5% of patients was .49 milligrams, or the weight of a single grain of sugar.

Haber is confident the FDA and food companies will make changes to labeling in the next few years.

Haber's research is published in the scholarly journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. In the meantime, Kai Yee is holding out hope, even if better labeling wouldn't help people like him with extreme food allergies.

"Yeah, I am hopeful," he says. "I just want to grab something out of my allergies and even if I don't like the food I want to be able to know I don't have to stay away from it and it is safe." 

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.