New Study Shows That Many People Who Think They Have Food Allergies Actually Don't
Allergies are on the rise in the United States, but a new study published in JAMA Network Open reveals that the reported increase in food allergies may be overblown. According to their data, the researchers who published the study concluded that almost 50% of people who believe they have a food allergy do not qualify for a food allergy diagnosis.
To determine the validity of people’s beliefs about their food allergy status, the scientists surveyed over 40,000 adults in the U.S. Nearly one in five of those surveyed believed that they had a food allergy. However, once details of their history and symptoms were evaluated, it was discovered that only about one in ten of those people truly suffer from a food allergy.
Allergy and immunology experts have pondered why this discrepancy exists and have posed two ideas. One idea is that those who falsely believe that they have a food allergy suffer instead from another type of allergy, such as seasonal allergies and do not recognize the true cause for their allergy symptoms. Another idea is that these people mistake food intolerance for food allergies. While food intolerance can make people feel unwell, an important distinction between food intolerance and food allergy is that only a food allergy engages the immune system.
What this means in a practical sense is that those with a food intolerance can still eat the food to which they are intolerant. Indeed, food intolerance works in a dose-dependent way, so small amounts of the food may be well-tolerated and larger amounts may lead to symptoms. Allergic reactions to food, on the other hand, can be life threatening even at incredibly small doses.
The researchers found that the symptoms reported by many of those who incorrectly believed they had food allergies were more consistent with seasonal allergies and food intolerance, corroborating experts’ suspicions that seasonal allergies and food intolerance could account for at least some cases where people erroneously believe they have a food allergy. Perpetuating the confusion about the distinctions between food allergy and food intolerance may be the rise in clinics that claim that they can identify adverse reactions with a single test – despite the inability of these tests to do so - and that use the concepts of food allergy and food insensitivity interchangeably. Educating patients on what food allergies are and how they can identify the symptoms of food allergies may help to improve people’s understanding of these allergies and how to manage them.