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Food Allergies Less Common Than You Think

By Sierra Black |

Think your kid has a food allergy? Think again, says a new report commissioned by the federal government. Food allergies are much less common than most of us believe.

While only about 8 percent of kids and 5 percent of adults genuinely suffer from food allergies, 30 percent of us think we do. Why are we so confused?

For starters, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what a food allergy is. As the experts gathered to write this report put it:

Allergies involve the immune system, while intolerances generally do not. For example, a headache from sulfites in wine is not a food allergy. It is an intolerance. The same is true for lactose intolerance, caused by the lack of an enzyme needed to digest sugar in milk.

Uh, great. If you have a serious intolerance to a food, you should probably still avoid it. For most of us, this makes the difference between an allergy and an intolerance pretty much academic.

There’s also the issue of terminology. I know perfectly well I’m not allergic to any foods, but I sometimes tell waiters and acquiantances that I’m allergic to caffeine, wheat and soy because it’s easier than explaining how these foods react badly with my personal body chemistry.

Another problem with diagnosing allergies is that the two standard tests for food allergy are largely ineffective. A positive result for a skin prick test or a blood test doesn’t mean you have the allergy. In fact, you have less than a 50 percent chance of actually being allergic to whatever you reacted to in the test.

With children, this problem is compounded by the fact that they tend to outgrow allergies. A child might be legitimately allergic to something at 2 and be able to eat it without trouble at 10. Or not.

The most reliable way to diagnose an allergy is to test the food directly by feeding it to a patient in a disguised format, so that the patient doesn’t know what they are eating. If they react to the hidden food, they are allergic. Many doctors are reluctant to do this type of testing, especially with children, because food allergy reactions can be so severe.

To try to manage the chaos, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is creating guidelines for the diagnoses and treatment of allergic patients.

Photo: s58y

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About Sierra Black


Sierra Black

Sierra Black lives, writes and raises her kids in the Boston area. She loves irreverence, hates housework and wants to be a writer and mom when she grows up. Read bio and latest posts → Read Sierra's latest posts →

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14 thoughts on “Food Allergies Less Common Than You Think

  1. Em says:

    The big difference between an allergy and an intolerance is that an allergy can kill you, while an intolerance can’t.

  2. Marj says:

    What Em said. It’s ridiculous to equate bloating to anaphylactic shock.

  3. PlumbLucky says:

    True, but having one intolerance, I can see the idea of avoidance being a majorly good idea (not bloating, but projectile vomiting). And sometimes instilling THAT into people is difficult…if I tell someone I’m allergic, they leave it be. If I say I’m intolerant, I get a “well you can have just a little, right?”. Nope, it won’t kill me, but projectile vomiting is pretty gross and something I’d much rather avoid if at all possible :-) .
    My bigger issue though has always been that “no. I can’t have just a little, thank you.” with regards to my food allergies (which have been verified with blood test AND food challenge under the care of an allergist).

  4. Leigh says:

    I spent a decade intolerant to fermented milk products (ice cream I could eat, cheese & frozen yogurt I couldn’t). I knew it wasn’t an allergy, but I would tell wait staff it was in order to get the order right. If I just asked for cheese to be left off the order would most likely come back wrong. My favorite is still when I had to send a salad covered in cheese back and heard the waitress yell at the cook staff that she told them to leave the cheese off and were they TRYING to kill her customers. The best result of my pregnancy besides my son is I can eat all these things again. Don’t know why, don’t care. I got my pizzas back.

  5. MomofBeans says:

    My advice, as the parent of a child who suffers from severe food allergies (ones that produce anaphylaxis), is that if you suspect that your child is allergic to something, consult a pediatric allergy and immunology specialist before you do anything else. Food allergies may not be as prevalent as people assume, but they are certainly still a very serious reality for some and I don’t think that that reality should be undermined.

  6. PlumbLucky says:

    What MomofBeans said! I got lucky…was sent to a pediatric allergist (I do not know if it was immunology specialist or not) and thank goodness for that.

  7. Stephanie says:

    I have a gluten intolerance. When I eat gluten it damages my intestines so that they stop absorbing nutrients. No, I won’t die immediately from anaphylactic shock. Instead I’ll die slowly by malnutrition. That’s why some intolerances are just as serious as some allergies. They can be more than just an upset stomach. Unfortunately there’s not enough education in the food processing and food service industries and too many people use the terms casually or in the wrong context. I admit I’m guilty of saying “allergy” in a restaurant in order to scare the waitstaff into getting my order right, which doesn’t help the cause overall but certainly helps me eat safely and healthily.

  8. Rob Reinhardt, MD says:

    There is a difference between sensitization and true clinical allergy, and determining which patients are sensitized and which are truly allergic is a challenge for doctors. Current skin and blood tests measure the body’s IgE or sensitization to allergens, but a positive result does not necessarily mean a patient will have a serious reaction.

    The science of allergy testing is evolving. With allergen component testing, the antibody response can be tested against specific molecular level protein components of the allergen, in order to provide additional specific information about the various IgE antibody populations. This knowledge, in conjunction with ongoing research, will soon aid in a clinician’s overall assessment of a patient. ImmunoCAP Allergen Components are expected to allow specialists to pinpoint those patients who are at risk for true food allergies.

    Specific IgE to one peanut protein component, Ara H 2, has been shown as a prime culprit of a potentially serious clinical response to peanut 97 percent of the time, but is only present in about ¼ of the patients having tested positive to the entire peanut extract using traditional skin or blood tests. Molecular level testing will soon allow discrimination between clinical sensitization and potentially serious, true clinical allergy.

    Allergists need a wide range of information, including patient history, blood and skin tests, and challenge tests to help patients and parents understand the allergic process. Allergen component testing adds another critical tool to the food allergy diagnosis toolkit.

    Rob Reinhardt, MD

    Senior Director

    Medical, Regulatory & Quality

    Phadia US Inc.

    Associate Professor

    Michigan State University

  9. Marj says:

    Well, saying allergy to get understanding is fine. However, believing you have an allergy when you have a mild intolerance (not a severe one) is so common that people tend to think food allergies are really common. They are not. No disrespect for people who have problems with certain types of food, but I get tired of so many people thinking that most people are allergic to things like wheat, dairy or nuts. These are food, not poison, and allergies and intolerance to them are not the standard, just as diabetes, asthma and heart disease are not the default settings on a human.

  10. vika says:

    It’s worth distinguishing between allergy and intolerance in part because an allergy, triggered, compromises your immune system. Knowing this may lead to better choices when the immune system is in fact compromised.

  11. Erin Turner says:

    Most allergies can be treated by corticosteroids and also some antihistamine blockers.*–

  12. my sister was born with lactose intolerance and she can’t even take more than a glass of milk*`*

  13. Kel says:

    I understand that food intolerances can be serious and painful, but you can simply say that you have a severe intolerance. I have a nut allergy that has only gotten worse over the years because people wouldn’t take allergies seriously. If I say I have a tree nut allergy I just know people are thinking, “you and everyone else.” Often allergic reactions get worse with every exposure. A restaurant or friend putting nuts on a salad and then taking them off and giving that same salad to me is dangerous. It’s been done so many times that at this point, lettuce that has touched a walnut would require an ambulance ride.

    If someone is lactose intolerant, just say so. Honesty and clarity not only help people with allergies, it can help educate people that there are entirely different ways to treat intolerances. The more we speak about intolerances, perhaps they’ll be taken more seriously, too.

  14. masinfoplus says:

    Some times its a pain in the ass to read what men and women wrote but this website is real user genial ! .

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