Children born during the highly sanitised Covid years may be at an increased risk of developing food allergies and potentially other chronic illnesses, a leading Australian food allergy expert warns.
Even before the pandemic, Australia was the world’s allergy capital – and our changing hygiene habits are an added complication for scientists trying to make life better for the 20 per cent of Aussies directly afflicted, and their families.
Professor Mimi Tang, an internationally acclaimed immunologist-allergist at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne, says a child’s immune status and risk for chronic illness is set in the first years of life. The key to good health is the gut microbiota – a collective term to describe good and bad gut bugs found in the digestive tract.
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“We know the gut microbiota are important for training of the immune system to set itself at a healthy tone; that is, having the right balance so it reacts appropriately to harmful organisms that can cause illness and not reacting to harmless substances such as foods,” Professor Tang said.
“Over the last century our microbial exposures have been contracting, which has had a negative impact on our gut microbiota. We are living in a more sanitised world, so we have lost our (bacterial) friends as well as our foes.
“Research is showing us that our gut microbiotas are different to that of people who live in a more traditional way such as hunter gatherers in South America or Africa.”
NOT AS SIMPLE AS EATING DIRT
Professor Tang, who is one of the co-authors of a new book trying to help families with food allergies, said the impact of Covid habits on the long-term health of young children is yet to be fully understood.
“Increased use of antiseptics probably has a negative impact on our gut microbiome,” Professor Tang said. “This was for a short time for most people. However, children who had their first years of life during Covid could very much be affected.
“From the time you develop in the womb through to the first couple of years of life is when your gut microbiota are developing, so that’s the most critical period when environmental exposures can support or undermine the establishment of a healthy gut microbiota.”
Waging a complex war against allergies … Dr Mimi Tang of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
Professor Tang says there is a lot of research underway, including work led by the MCRI, looking at complex environmental factors that increase the risk of food allergies in children.
She says it is not “one-plus-one equals two” – and the solution to ensuring children have a healthy gut microbiome is not as simple as just letting them play in and eat dirt, as the soil composition in developed countries such as Australia has changed significantly in the last century.
“Food allergy results from complex interactions between the genes you inherit and the environment you are exposed to, particularly in early life,” Professor Tang said. “There is a lot of work going on to understand these interactions.”
It is an exciting field of research, she says – and it may eventually uncover the exact bacterial signature that leads to developing food allergies or preventing them.
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Professor Tang also explains that diet is another key weapon in the allergy battle.
Research links a more diverse diet in infancy to a lower risk for developing food allergies; and eating a mixed, nutritionally balanced diet can help develop and maintain a healthy gut microbiota, which in turn can minimise the risk of allergies and other chronic illnesses in later life.
Professor Tang and colleagues at the institute have contributed their expertise to the new Allergy Friendly Family Cookbook, which, before it even hit the shelves, proved a game-changer for one family trialling the recipes.
AT LAST WE CAN EAT MEALS TOGETHER
The James family has been on a long journey with food allergies: trying to understand them, and learning to live with them.
Both children – daughter Neve, now 9, and five-year-old son Rafe – have allergies. Where Neve has grown out of most of them, she is gluten intolerant. Rafe, however, remains allergic to dairy, eggs and some nuts.
It can make planning meals a minefield – and Pippa, husband Nathan and the kids themselves are all too familiar with the symptoms of irritability, pain and discomfort that come with gut issues and food intolerances.
‘I know I can trust it’ … the new allergy-friendly cookbook has changed mealtimes for Pippa James and her children, Rafe and Neve. Picture: Richard Dobson
Pippa said when the children were babies she found it difficult to find trusted information about what the family could eat.
“I was always on the search for recipes that I could eat as I was breastfeeding and couldn’t eat what the children couldn’t eat. I was constantly trying to source recipes that were gluten free and those without dairy, eggs and nuts. It was not easy.”
She has been trialling the new Allergy Friendly Family Cookbook – a joint project between allergy experts from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and the food team at News Corp Australia’s Taste.com.au, which she called “fantastic”.
The book presents straightforward information and recipes that are clearly marked as safe for those with different allergies. That means the Sydney-based family can now confidently sit down to the same meal at night.
A guide through the mealtime minefield … The Allergy Friendly Family Cookbook.
“I had the opportunity to sit with the kids and let them choose a recipe the other night, knowing I could trust it,” Pippa said. “That’s the first time I have been able to do that, and it was lovely to sit there with them and let them pick something they would like, and could safely eat.”
Penny Fowler, New Corp Australia’s Community Ambassador, said the book is set to become a kitchen classic.
“This book and its recipes will become a mainstay of families across Australia to better cope with the rising problem of food-related allergies in their children,” Ms Fowler said.
“It’s absolutely packed to the brim with flavoursome recipes that will find a welcome home in
“We are delighted that our team at Taste has worked with the MCRI to create this valuable book to give children and their families the certainty that the food they are eating is safe.”
The Allergy Friendly Family Cookbook, from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Taste, will be published by HarperCollins on Wednesday March 22. It is available to preorder now at Amazon.
Originally published as Covid hygiene could be linked to allergy spike, says expert whose book gives new hope to Aussie families