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With Rise in Food Allergies, UNC Responds with Research, Dining Options

Students eating different food at Holmes

January 8, 2020

Each semester at the University of Northern Colorado, over 50 new students who have food allergies work with Matthew Doyle, the assistant director for board operations and registered dietitian at UNC. He estimates that there are probably three times that many students with food allergies on campus who haven’t come forward.

Matt Doyle“It varies across the grades here, but the bulk are freshmen, and half the people who I talk to are recently diagnosed,” Doyle said (image at right).

According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased 50% between 1997 and 2011. Celiac disease (an intolerance to gluten and wheat) and allergies to peanuts and tree nuts account for 91% of the cases Doyle sees among UNC students. He also works with others who have multiple food allergies, intolerances and/or disorders.

Food Allergy Stats

According to the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), as many of 15 million people in the U.S. have food allergies with an estimated 9 million, or 4%, of adults having food allergies.

The top food allergens that account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions along with the estimated prevalence among the U.S. population include:

  1. All seafood (2.8% in adults)
  2. Crustacean shellfish (1.2%)
  3. Peanuts (0.6-1.3%)
  4. Tree nuts (04.-0.6%)
  5. Fish (0.4%)
  6. Milk and egg (0.2-0.4%)

According to Nicholas Pullen, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Biological Sciences at UNC, the reasons behind the rise in food allergies since are still unclear. Some evidence points to food preparation, timing of exposure and other possibilities.

Nick Pullen“Many scientists hypothesize that the development of food and other allergies has something to do with environmental factors since we seem to see more food allergy in ‘Western,’ or post-industrial nations with advanced healthcare and sanitation infrastructure, smaller families and centralized agricultural systems — in other words, everyone’s not farming their own foods,” Pullen said (image at right).

Pullen is also the principal investigator of the Inflammation Lab at UNC, where he and his team study reactions within the human body. In one of their recent studies, they discovered that a signal from a specific type of cell in the immune system can provide longer term inflammatory responses to help defend against diseases; this discovery has led to further interest on food allergy and gut cancer and how the body responds to those.

As this research continues, UNC Dining Services’ full-time staff take a certification class every three years on handling food allergies in the dining rooms. There are protocols in place with dining hall managers in case a student has questions about an allergy or dietary restriction.

Bear Bites, the online and interactive menus at UNC, can be used to filter out allergens or specific dietary restrictions. Students with food allergies are encouraged to bring antihistamine and/or prescribed epinephrine auto-injectors while dining on campus as an added precaution.

Also, a special serving line called The DASH is available at Tobey-Kendel and Holmes Dining halls. The DASH fare is free of soy, milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat/gluten and shellfish. It is available weekdays at lunch and dinner, and weekends for brunch and dinner.

Food allergens big 8

“We try to stay vigilant and do what we can to help those students with food allergies,” Doyle said. “We’re working with those students on using Bear Bites and building self-advocacy.”

Students who have a food allergy are encouraged to set up a 15-minute appointment with Doyle by phone at (970) 351-2652 or email at diningservices@unco.edu. He works closely with those students and the Disability Resource Center to ensure they’re knowledgeable of where allergens are typically found on campus.

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— Written by Katie Corder

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