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Could Old Order Mennonites hold the key to understanding food allergies?

Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo

The University of Rochester Medical Center is embarking on $2.4 million study focused on a population that is virtually immune to food allergies: Old Order Mennonites.

Fewer than 1% of Old Order Mennonites have food allergies, asthma or other allergic diseases.

Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo is leading the study,  an associate professor at UR. She said a difference in lifestyle could be affecting immune systems. Old Order Mennonites live on farms and deliver babies at home, while people who live in cities do just the opposite.

“We do talk about the hygiene hypothesis and our environments becoming too hygienic and too clean and too sterile in a way.”

Old Order Mennonites also avoid antibiotics and largely drink unpasteurized milk, exposing themselves to a variety of bacteria that city and suburbs don't see.

“Urbanization has happened relatively quickly in the life span of the human kind. So perhaps our immune systems have not been able to catch up.”

15 million Americans suffer from food allergies, including 1 in 13 American children.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will compare immune system development in Old Order Mennonite infants with that of infants who are considered high-risk for developing a food allergy.

UR is currently recruiting for infant/mother pairs in Rochester who have allergies in the family. If you're expecting and interested in participating, you can find more information on their website