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.