The Overly Swelled Perceptions of Food Allergies

2010-09-05 | |
Last updated: 2010-09-05

In an ever-increasing number of locations, whether it is in schools, food production facilities or even on some flights, the peanut-free world is increasing in size. More and more, through product advertising and food bans, the general population is being made aware of the personal risks faced on a daily basis by those with extreme food allergies. Given the high risk of dying that affected individuals face if a severe allergic reaction occurs when they are not prepared, such changes are positive news.

However, this increasing awareness is not simply the result of the strong lobbying efforts of those affected by such allergies. It is also due to an increase in the numbers of people affected and those who believe they are affected. The two numbers are, in fact, quite different and this difference points to the important problem that some currently-used allergy tests are not very effective and despite increasing awareness, the understanding of allergies by the public is not very good.

Although the human body could be allergic to any number of foods, food allergies are mostly caused by the body’s response to proteins in a very limited set of foods. In particular, milk, eggs, peanuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, fish, shellfish, soya and wheat cause the overwhelming majority of food-related allergic reactions.

The reactions can vary significantly in intensity, but generally tend to become worse with repeated exposure meaning that individuals should avoid the foods that cause the allergic reactions. A severe reaction will often result in extremely low blood pressure as well as swelling of the airways that can stop breathing.

To test an individual for allergies, physicians frequently use a skin test that involves exposing the skin to a small amount of the allergy causing material in order to provoke a controlled allergic reaction. If the skin becomes irritated, it might mean that an individual has allergies but positive results are not conclusive. For those who cannot undertake a skin test, blood tests are also used to check for allergies. The commonly used blood tests are also not definitive.

As an example of the lack of accuracy of some skin tests, researchers from the University of New South Wales found in a 2007 study that 33% of children whose skin test results would indicate an allergy to peanuts had no such allergy.

Such lack of certainty in allergy testing has helped contribute to a significant portion of the population believing that they have food allergies. In one study by Wurzburg University, researchers found in comprehensive testing that they could only confirm allergies in 49% of individuals who previously thought that they had such allergies. Whether the allergies had been self-diagnosed or not was not known in this study.

Other statistics gathered from a survey by the European Union Food information Council found that 20% of adults believed that they had food allergies. A more recent study by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in the US found that the number of people believing themselves to have food allergies was as high as 30%.

Though one might attribute such beliefs to these people being hypochondriacs, the severity of health effects from some food allergies and the lack of definitive test results makes erring on the side of caution a potentially reasonable behavior.

However, while so many believe that they have food allergies, research does point to smaller percentage of the population being affected. A comprehensive study from Mount Sinai School of Medicine estimates that between 8% of children and 5% of adults suffer from food allergies. The research also found that of those at risk, roughly 30,000 suffer from an allergic food reaction each year and of these, 1000 will die as a result. Particularly for peanuts allergies, 150 will die. While still affecting a significant number of people, these values are significantly different from the numbers found based on the opinions of individuals.

The difference between the scientific estimates of those affected and the numbers of people who believe themselves to be affected indicates that there is some level of self-diagnosis taking place with respect to food allergies. This is supported by research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2005. According to that research, the number of people with self-diagnosed allergy to cows milk was 10 times higher than what could be proven with rigorous testing in a clinical setting.

Other research at Lübeck Medical University found that only 75% of study participants who reported allergic reaction actually suffered from food allergies. Similar research in Canada found a perceived rate of allergies that was again lower, but still 7% to 13% higher than what could be confirmed by measurement in a clinic. Clearly, individuals are assuming allergic reactions when they are experiencing other effects.

The combination of inaccurate methods to test for food allergies and beliefs by individuals that they are affected by food allergies means that whether real or perceived, food allergies are affecting an increasing percentage of the population. Without the use of more effective allergy tests, people are unnecessarily attempting to cope with food risks that they do not have. This suggests a strong need for further research to provide more effective allergy tests that can limit the number of people who live with the restrictions of allergies without actually having them.

While the number of people affected by allergies is lower than what the population believes, the rate of food allergies is increasing and a future article will look at this growing problem.

Do you suffer from allergies to food or otherwise? Share your experiences in the health forums.

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