February 24, 2020

Refining statistics on food allergy trends

A new public health initiative supported by the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center (MHWFAC) will analyze billions of health insurance records to elucidate trends in the incidence of food allergy – from age and gender to geographic distribution.

From 15 to 32 million people living in the United States are estimated to be allergic to one or more foods, and the prevalence of food allergy seems to be growing – at rates some call explosive.  

However, understanding of food allergy prevalence and trends has been limited by available data. Most of the nationally representative data come from self/parental reports, which are known to provide overestimates.  

Alternative data sources are small and subject to selection bias. These problems have prevented recognition of food allergy as a public health problem, limited resources available for accommodations for patients and stymied efforts for treatments.

The study, “Understanding the Epidemiology of Food Allergy in the US,” will be conducted in conjunction with the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and the U-M School of Public Health.

“As clinicians and researchers, we are excited at the opportunity to perform this analysis,” said James R. Baker, Jr., MD, director of the MHWFAC.  “More information about ongoing trends in who develops food allergy will, we hope, improve the allocation of public resources toward treatment and research.”

Epidemiology is the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations. It is a cornerstone of public health, and shapes policy decisions and evidence-based practice by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventive healthcare. 

This project will contribute to the literature on the epidemiology of food allergy by analyzing a unique database of 24 billion privately billed healthcare procedures that covers over 15 million individuals since 2007. 

Access to these proprietary data will be gained through a partnership with the national, independent nonprofit, FAIR Health. 

An initial exploration of these data in 2017 uncovered a number of interesting trends that warrant deeper analysis – including geographic differences that seem to shift over time, as well as distinct claim patterns by gender and age.  

Further analysis of these data will paint a more complete picture of the food allergy distribution and trends in the US.  

A goal will be to shape next steps for a public policy agenda.  This social science work will be conducted under the auspices of the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center, and complement the extensive immunological research already underway.

The research is funded via MCubed, a U-M program that stimulates innovative research and scholarship by distributing real-time seed funding to multi-unit, faculty-led teams.  Through Mcubed, research faculty from different campus units can form a collaborative trio, or “cube,” and request funds to advance their idea.