Inorganic food additives could make babies more susceptible to potentially life-threatening allergies
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Inorganic nanoparticles have been found to potentially cross the placenta and enter breast milk, increasing the risk of food allergies in infants.
Nanotechnologies have greatly impacted the food industry through improvements in production, manufacturing and processing methods with the goal of making food safer and healthier. However, the use of nanoparticles in crop protection products, processing aids, food additives and food-contact surfaces can lead to the transmission of nanoparticles to humans through consumption.
A recent review published in Frontiers in Allergy by Mohammad Issa of Université Paris-Saclay and colleagues warns of the possible unintended health consequences of significant changes in food production through the use of nanoparticles. The review shows evidence that nanoparticles can cross the placenta and put fetuses at greater risk of potentially dangerous food allergies.
“Due to the immunotoxic and biocidal properties of nanoparticles, exposure can disrupt the beneficial exchanges of the host-gut microbiota and impair the development of the gut barrier and gut-associated immune system in fetuses and newborns,” said Dr. Karine Adel-Patient, corresponding author of the study. “This may be related to the epidemic of immune-related diseases in children, such as food allergies — a major public health concern.”
Allergies on the rise
Food allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to proteins found in food. Children should normally develop an oral tolerance that allows them to eat without their bodies seeing dietary proteins as a threat, but if the immune system or gut barrier is compromised, they may become sensitized and develop an allergic reaction instead.
Food allergies affect between 2-5% of adults and 6-8% of children, and the prevalence has increased sharply in recent decades. We know that environmental factors play a significant role in the development of allergies, and the higher prevalence in children suggests that early life environmental factors are probably key. Dietary practices and the environment affect gut health in young children, and deficiencies in gut microbiota and a variety of dietary proteins can impair the development of oral tolerance.
To understand how nanoparticles can upset this delicate balance, the team focused on three additives containing nanoparticles that are regularly found in food.
“Such drugs can cross the placental barrier and then reach the developing fetus,” explains Adel-Patient. “Excretion into milk is also suggested, leaving the newborn exposed.”
While nanoparticles have been shown to cross the placenta in rodents, there is also evidence that the additives cross the placenta in humans as well. Nanoparticles are not absorbed in the gut, but rather accumulate there and affect the bacteria present in the gut microbiome, altering the number of species present and their proportions. Given the evidence for the importance of the gut microbiome in the development of a well-formed immune system, this is of concern for the development of allergies. Nanoparticles also affect the intestinal epithelial barrier, which is another essential part of a healthy response to dietary proteins.
Evidence for immunotoxicity is more difficult to gather, but the team pointed to evidence that gut-associated lymphoid tissue in humans is also negatively affected by these nanoparticles. This suggests that the effect on the immune system is greater than currently thought, consistent with evidence from rodent studies. However, these usually reflect a proportionately higher dose than the estimated human intake.
“The influence of such an exposure on the development of a food allergy has not yet been investigated,” warned Adel-Patient. “Our review underscores the urgent need for researchers to assess the risk associated with exposure to foodborne inorganic nanoparticles during a critical sensitivity window and its impact on children’s health.”
Reference: “Perinatal Exposure to Foodborne Inorganic Nanoparticles: A Role in Food Allergy Susceptibility?” by Mohammad Issa, Gilles Rivière, Eric Houdeau, and Karine Adel-Patient, December 5, 2022, Frontiers in Allergy.