Does Organic Food Cause Allergies?

By now, approximately one million people have asked me, “So, have you seen those news reports that organic food is causing a rise in food allergies?” The answer is, I’ve seen the stories. But, they’re wrong. For readers who don’t know what the heck I’m talking writing about, here’s the back story.

A few days ago, noted immunologist Jonathan O’B Hourihane from University College in Cork, Ireland, testified before a UK parliamentary committee and speculated about the recorded rise in the presence of food allergy among British children. Several British newspapers then blew what Hourihane said way out of proportion. Typical is this passage from the Daily Telegraph: “Parental trust in organic food could be a reason more children are suffering from allergies, an academic has suggested. … ‘The impression that organic or exotic fresh food is better for children may by linked to the appearance of allergies to foods that would have appeared bizarre to previous generations,’ Prof O’B Hourihane said.”

Wow! That sounds pretty damning. But, cooler heads should probably chalk this up as yet another case of the British press trying to scare the public about nothing in order to sell newspapers. While I haven’t been able to find a transcript of O’B Hourihane’s testimony, it appears that he is suggesting, not that there is something inherent in organic food that causes more allergies, but rather that consumers who have been increasing their purchases of organic food are now more likely than previous generations were to buy a broader variety of foods from other continents. Hourihane specifically named the Kiwi Fruit and avacados, both of which contain proteins that are allergenic to some people, as foods that Britons of just a generation ago ate only rarely, if at all.

So, to the extent that there is a link between increasing allergies and organic food, it’s indirect, and results merely from the fact that consumers of organic are eating, in some ways, “better” than their counterparts, not that there’s anything inherent in organic food that would cause this (at least nothing that we know of). Since I spend much of my time trying to explain why the fruits of modern technology do not cause the problems the media unfairly charge them with, my sense of schadenfreude makes me a tad happy to see that organic food is now also being unfairly defamed. Still, I’d much rather explain why this story is wrong and convince people to be a bit more skeptical about things they learn from the infotainment industry.