Study reveals regional differences in allergies

Shrimp, mangos and shellfish top three common food allergens in Jiangxi

Scenes of a comic character swelling up after eating peanuts in Western TV shows have long been puzzling for many Chinese viewers, as few people in China encounter those who experience severe peanut allergy.

Their confusion can be explained by Chinese researchers who concluded in a new study that Chinese adults and children are more likely to be allergic to seafood, and less likely to be allergic to peanuts compared to people in the United States and Europe.

According to the study, shrimp, mangos and shellfish are the top three common food allergens in China's Jiangxi province, followed by eggs, fish, beef, milk and mutton.

"Animal-derived foods were the dominant offending foods, especially shrimp, and skin symptoms were the most commonly reported adverse reactions," said the study jointly conducted by researchers from the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment, Peking Union Medical College Hospital and Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing, as well as Nanchang University and the provincial center for disease control and prevention in Jiangxi.

The difference means that cultural, dietary, industrialization and biological factors can play an important role in food allergy patterns, it added.

The study interviewed nearly 21,000 participants living in Jiangxi aged 6 to 10 and 18 to 70. It was conducted in 2020 and 2021, and published last week in China CDC Weekly, the national health bulletin and an academic platform established by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chen Hongbing, a professor at the State Key Laboratory of Food Science and Technology at Nanchang University, who was involved in the study, said the findings largely fit with real-life experiences and past research.

"For instance, in a previous study on self-reported food allergies among children, seafood topped the list, followed by fish, eggs, fruits and milk," he said. However, some research also puts wheat as one of the most common allergy triggers among the general population, and eggs and milk are deemed the most common allergens for infants and young babies.

Chen said more epidemiological research is needed to address these discrepancies and to determine if various dietary habits across China result in varied food sensitivity.

In a separate study also published in China CDC Weekly last week, researchers found that the prevalence of food allergies in the population was 8 percent from 2009 to 2018, up from 5 percent from 1999 to 2008, "indicating that the prevalence of food allergies in China is on the rise".

Luo Xiaoqun, a doctor at Fudan University's Huashan Hospital, said during an interview with media outlet that the increasing rate of food allergies is a phenomenon observed worldwide, driven by changes in lifestyles, eating habits, as well as growing health awareness and diagnostic ability.

Luo, who was not involved in the studies, called for more data and research into food allergies in China. "Future formulation of guidelines or consensus in this field, and future development of new diagnostic kits should all be based on robust, domestic epidemiological data," she was quoted as saying.

For consumers, reading allergen labeling on food packages is an easy way to protect themselves from potential allergy triggers. But experts said a list of priority allergenic foods based on the actual situation in the Chinese population is not currently available.

Currently, food allergen labeling in China is not mandatory and labeling largely follows an international provision that includes eight major types of food such as milk, eggs, fish and shellfish.

"China has made improvements in devising food labeling standards in recent years, and we hope our findings can accelerate the process of making such labeling compulsory in the near future," Chen said.