Childhood Food Allergy

Probably the most common allergies that appear at a very young age are those to cow’s milk and to peanuts. Everyone has heard of a baby whose mother is not nursing for one reason or another becoming very colicky, failing to gain weight or having other problems because its formula is not correct for its young system. In fact, these symptoms can often develop in breast-fed babies too, in response to something the mom is ingesting regularly that does not agree with baby’s little tummy. However, it is most common for a baby who is formula-fed to be started on a formula containing cow’s milk.

As a whole, western hemisphere countries and particularly the US have traditionally used cow’s milk, even long after any other immature animal would have stopped nursing from its mother and begun relying on the food the adults consume. Whether the continuation of that tradition is because ‘we have always done it’ or because of the dairy lobby in the US, we are raised to believe that milk, specifically cow’s milk, is good for us and ‘builds strong bones’ or ‘does a body good’. Children growing up post-Depression were fed formula consisting of sweetened whole cow’s milk, and though the industry has come a long way in removing some substances, adding others and making the whole thing more convenient by powdering it to be mixed with water, the fact remains that cow’s milk is evolved to nourish baby cattle—not humans. The result is that some baby humans, given repeated exposure to substances within the formula that do not fit baby’s needs, quickly develop a life-long sensitivity or allergy to dairy products.

Nor are formulas using some other types of protein exempt from the problem. We have known of babies who are allergic to every type of formula, including soy, rice and milk from other animals. No doubt, the problem is exacerbated because babies take no other nourishment for at least six weeks after birth, resulting in over-exposure. Although goat’s or sheep’s milk is often touted as the least likely to result in an allergy, the Mayo Clinic advises that this is not the case, because these milks also contain the proteins that cause the problem. Instead, manufacturers are now producing hypoallergenic formulas, some of which use milk that has had the proteins broken down (hydrolyzed) and perhaps further treated using heat or filtering. Depending on the level of processing, these formulas are either classified as partially or extensively hydrolyzed. This is not to be confused with partially-hydrogenated. Other formulas are built, from the ground up so to speak, from individual amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

There are seven other foods that, along with milk, are responsible for 90% of childhood allergies: eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, tree nuts (like walnuts, Brazil nuts, and cashews), fish (such as tuna, salmon, and cod), and shellfish (like lobster, shrimp, and crab). The best way to avoid sensitivity, which is often outgrown as the child’s digestive system matures, is to avoid giving very young children any food containing these items. Since children often outgrow sensitivity to these foods if they avoid them after an initial reaction, they could actually represent food intolerance rather than allergy.

No matter the cause, if your child exhibits any of the symptoms of food allergy (trouble breathing, swelling of the face or lips, or severe vomiting or diarrhea after eating) you must call 911 right away. A child’s airway can close in a matter of minutes, so calling your doctor or driving the child to the emergency room yourself is not an option; you need paramedics on the scene immediately.