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FEATURE ARTICLE

Why We Develop Food Allergies

Coached by breast milk and good bacteria, the immune system strives to learn the difference between food and pathogens before the first morsel crosses our lips

Per Brandtzaeg

Figure 5. Mucosal immunity...Click to Enlarge Image

The primary duty of the immune system is to distinguish and destroy foreign agents such as bacteria and viruses. But one class of alien substances needs to be welcomed rather than rebuffed: our food. An adult human may pass a ton of food through the gut each year, nearly all of it distinct at the molecular level from our own flesh and blood. How the body suppresses its killer instinct in the presence of a gut-full of innocuous antigens is a phenomenon called oral tolerance. Failure of this system results in an allergic reaction to our food, sometimes with life-threatening consequences. Author Per Brandtzaeg explains how oral tolerance is established in the first months of life and the factors that influence this process, including the role of breastfeeding and the advantage of vaginal delivery for inoculating babies with healthy bacteria.


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