Food Allergies Not as Widespread as People Believe

May 18, 2010

By Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire

With a significant proportion
of the population believing – not always accurately – that they suffer from
food allergies, a newly published, U.S. government-commissioned report suggests
that improvements to testing methods need to be implemented.

Funded by the
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) “to
try to impose order on the chaos of food allergy testing,” according
to the New York Times, preliminary findings have been published in the Journal
of the American Medical Association
. The full and final report is due
out in June. The paper explains that “an expert panel will provide
guidelines defining food allergies and giving criteria to diagnose and manage

Although the team reviewed more than 12,000 articles on
food allergies published between January 1988 and September 2009, just 72
contained “sufficient
data for analysis.” Their results showed “the true incidence of
food allergies is only about eight percent for children and less than five
percent for adults,” even though 30 percent of people believe they have

Dr. Matthew J. Fenton, who oversees the guidelines project for the
allergy institute, explained to the Times that confusion often occurs
in differentiating between allergies and intolerances, which are less severe.

WebMD adds, “The lack of an accepted definition and evidence-based
guidelines for diagnosing food allergies has hindered efforts to determine
their prevalence and evaluate new treatments.” Lead researcher Dr. Jennifer
Schneider Chafen pointed out, “Right now there are just too many different
definitions of what food allergies are … A true food allergy can be life
threatening, but many people who just can’t tolerate a particular food
are told they have food allergies.”

The report points out that while a doctor-supervised
food challenge is the most reliable way to confirm a specific food allergy,
tests can be expensive, time consuming and risky. Instead, many allergies are
diagnosed through skin prick or blood testing alone, which can result in over-diagnosis. quoted the report’s strongly worded conclusions that “the
evidence on the prevalence, diagnosis, management and prevention of food allergies
is voluminous, diffuse and critically limited by the lack of uniformity for
the diagnosis of a food allergy, severely limiting conclusions about best practices
for management and prevention.”

Discussion Questions: What roles should food manufacturers and retailers play
in providing information and/or support to consumers worried about food allergies?
Should retailers use pharmacies and/or in-store clinics to address this issue?

Commentary] What a welcome report! Back in 2005 my report on just-food referred
to an even earlier report on the same site, in 2003, on the true extent of
food allergies. At the time, I quoted statistics from international medical
journal, studentBMJ,
suggesting that “true food intolerance (allergy and intolerance combined)
is estimated to affect five to eight percent of children, most of whom outgrow
the condition, and less than one to two percent of adults … but around 20
percent of the population think they have a food allergy/intolerance.” Now
that several more years have passed, it seems that analysis may finally lead
to improvement in diagnostic procedures.

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10 Comments on "Food Allergies Not as Widespread as People Believe"

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Bob Phibbs
10 years 11 months ago

On a United flight from LA to Washington, I felt sick; headache, flu symptoms. When we arrived I heard the guy behind me, “Oh Sammy, did you have good flight?” As I got up I saw him talking to the cat he had had under my seat! How is it airlines had to drop peanuts for a few but allow cats who more of us are allergic to? The hype never matched the reality for food allergies–this study is indeed good news.

Anne Howe
10 years 11 months ago
I’m not sure food companies should enter into the diagnostic arena for food allergies. Food companies should, however, be truly vigilant on ingredient listings and what is in processing facilities. Retailers could be more helpful by merchandising, even if only temporarily, new food options that are nut-free, lactose-free, gluten-free, etc. By doing so, shoppers can try new foods, and not have to scour the shelves looking for options. Once shoppers try a new option, if suitable, they’ll be eager to find it again on its “home” shelf. My last point is this. If you have ever had to call 911 for a food allergy situation, you might think twice about trying to be less vigilant on food allergies. Even food intolerances can cause pretty severe problems, especially over a longer time frame. Every time my adult daughter makes an unknown food or beverage choice that turns out to be “contaminated” she understands why she must be extremely vigilant about asking for full transparency to ingredients. Much of the issue lives in the restaurant business, where… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
10 years 11 months ago

People won’t trust food companies any more than they trust any large corporation. If I don’t feel well and deny I’m allergic to pollen, for example, I’ll blame my symptoms on stress, or food, or the phase of the moon.

Most Americans don’t take a rational approach to their health to begin with, so appealing to reason is a shaky strategy.

Al McClain
Al McClain
10 years 11 months ago

Whether food allergies are less prevalent than once believed or not, the issue is that a small percentage of the population has food allergies, but many more people BELIEVE they have food allergies. And, in today’s world of mega-information and social media, the latter is what really counts. Manufacturers and retailers have to expertly label everything and play defense on this issue in order to avoid consumer complaints and lawsuits as much as possible.

Ed Rosenbaum
10 years 11 months ago

Interesting topic. Our local NBC TV affiliate ran a special on this subject last week. It seems new mothers are automatically believing their children have food allergies when, in fact, that may not often be the reason for the malady. I often wonder how the past few generations were able to raise and feed their young children with far fewer “issues” than seem to be prevalent today?

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
10 years 11 months ago

In the medical profession there is a significant difference between an allergic reaction, a sensitivity, and an inability to tolerate a food. That can be very confusing to a consumer who may find it easier to just say, “I have an allergy.” The affect in the marketplace is the same–the consumer wants to know ingredients so they can avoid whatever creates an allergic response, a sensitivity to create symptoms, or intolerance to create symptoms. The impact on the marketplace does not seem to make much difference. The impact of differentiation for the medical profession makes a big difference for treatment.

Robert Straub
Robert Straub
10 years 11 months ago

Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times has written extensively and somewhat controversially on the growth industry of food allergies in the US and Europe (since food allergies are almost non-existent in much of the world)–definitely worth Googling….

Steve Montgomery
10 years 11 months ago

As I have said on many issues, “The consumer perception is the reality we have to live with.” This is also true with regard to food allergies as many respondents have indicated. This growing perception is another reason companies have to be vigilant in their ingredient selection and reporting.

Katia Shirikian
Katia Shirikian
10 years 11 months ago

I believe in food allergies.

Who should fund it? Well the food manufacturers. It could well be used as a marketing aspect for example labeling it on the products’ packaging. However, it must be controlled by specific guidelines & standards and collectively specified by a medical team/board. This way the consumer can choose which product that he or she is consuming is causing which specific type of allergy and ignore it if they choose.

Let’s face it, we are not easting the same things in the same way our ancestors used to 100 years ago and we are not breathing the same air. Food allergies or not, the synopsis should be maintained and acknowledged to direct its awareness overall.

Dan Desmarais
Dan Desmarais
10 years 11 months ago

The process needs to start with the manufacturers. This includes Consumer Package Goods as well as Food Service.

I have allergies and intolerances. I was in my 30s before I figured out what were intolerances and not true allergies. A great doctor helped me out and made me bring food to his office and eat little bits at a time for hours watching me for reactions.

Get the labels right and you’ll win the consumers. The people with allergies and intolerances are EXTREMELY loyal to products they know will not hurt them.


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