Food Allergies in the News

Food allergies were featured in a segment on Good Morning, America today (May 13, 2010). I’m excited whenever accurate information about food allergies is highlighted in media that large portions of the population will watch or see. The teacher side of me is well aware that true knowledge is not achieved without repetition of information; therefore, the population at large (those who do not have immediate experience with allergies) will not be properly informed until they have had repeated exposure to accurate information about food allergies.

I have mixed feelings about this segment, though., which you can watch here. It focuses on a recent study which indicates that up to half of all those diagnosed with food allergies are actually misdiagnosed. I have no way of knowing the accuracy of the study and even if I had access to it, I wouldn’t be able to sufficiently analyze the methods used to determine if the results are true or not. As much as 50% seems a high number, though. I don’t know very many people in real life who have actually been diagnosed with food allergies, and of those people, they definitely have life-threatening allergies without question.

My biggest concern about this featured segment is that it will downplay the serious nature of food allergies. Even though cautioned otherwise, the average viewer may very well step away from their morning news thinking that too many people are just complaining of food allergies for no reason. Although people who actually have food allergies are very aware of the dangers inherent in consuming certain foods, others without any food allergy experience may assume that they are making a mountain out of a molehill and that extra precautions are unnecessary and perhaps even silly. This is not a problem unless that uneducated person is put in a responsibility of providing food to a food-allergic person, perhaps as a chef in a restaurant, or a caregiver at school or daycare.

I do not deny that there is truth in the findings of the study. In particular, I think it very likely that children diagnosed with laundry lists of multiple allergies are probably over-diagnosed. Even with my Certain Little Someone – I think it’s entirely possible he is not actually allergic to peanut, because we only tested for it once and the number was very low. We choose to avoid it anyway, because it’s not an essential element in his diet and because it can be such a deadly allergy. The same may be true for wheat, because he has never specifically reacted to it, although he has definitely tested positive for it on both blood and skin tests. I can certainly believe, then, that a person diagnosed as allergic to 5 or more foods may very well not actually be allergic to one or more of them.

However, how does it happen that someone has been diagnosed with an allergy to 1 or 2 specific foods and is not actually allergic to them? Does that happen? This is what I find very difficult to believe. In the news segment, they accurately report that the “gold standard” for allergy testing is a food challenge and/or an actual reaction to food, and that blood and skin tests only identify the possibility of any particular allergy. I cannot argue with that, but what would cause a person to be tested with blood and skin tests for a particular food if not that they experienced a reaction to the food in question? There is no reason for a person to consult a doctor about food allergies unless they have actually experienced a reaction. Furthermore, there is no reason for a doctor to order those tests unless a patient describes an allergic reaction that coincides with consumption of a particular food. I suppose it is possible that someone complains of vague symptoms, associates them with their diet in general but not a particular food in specific, and then is tested for all the foods they eat on a regular basis. When casting such a wide net, it’s likely to catch a positive number or two on a blood or skin test.

My own conclusion, based solely on my own common sense and not based even remotely on science or the scientific method, is that people diagnosed with multiple food allergies may not actually be allergic to all of the foods that tested positive on a blood or skin test, especially if they cannot report a separate reaction to each specific food on the list. However, for most people who have actually gone through the process of testing for food allergies, especially if they are diagnosed with only 1 or 2, I would have to think that the majority are actually, in fact, allergic.

The other topic mentioned briefly on the show was that of the difference between intolerance and allergy. Now this I can wrap my brain around and fully support. Too many people unknowingly use the word “allergy” when really all they have is an intolerance. The common example is lactose intolerance, but I actually dislike that because I am fairly sure most lactose intolerance sufferers are acutely aware of their condition and do not confuse it with an allergy. Instead, I think of people who experience heartburn, headaches, or indigestion after eating something that “doesn’t agree with them”. They may be told by their doctor to avoid said food, and then, whether or not the doctor actually used the word “allergy” (surely doctors know better than that?), they use it of their own accord as an explanation for avoidance. Such a person doesn’t fit into the parameters of the study under discussion, though, because they do not have an official diagnosis to back up their use of the word “allergy”. Like I said in the beginning, though, it never hurts to reiterate the difference between the two until the majority of the population understands the difference and can respond accordingly.

In the end, if it’s true that many people are inaccurately diagnosed as allergic to various foods, who is to blame? In my opinion, in the end, it’s the doctors who actually give the diagnosis. But it is up to the patient to be informed about whatever condition they may or may not have.

Based on my own observations of those I know who have experienced allergies, any responsible pediatrician or doctor will refer a patient to an allergist whenever they suspect food allergies. I have particularly observed that to be the case when a pediatrician is involved; if they are the ones who handle the allergies, the parents know very little about their child’s condition and in some cases, have completely mishandled it. Food allergies require focused attention and care that a general practice doctor simply cannot adequately provide. Furthermore, if a parent suspects allergies in their child, they should request a referral to an allergist. Allergists are better equipped to read and understand test results, and prescribe appropriate precautions based on them. It is very possible that some doctors bungle up the testing and end up diagnosing their patients unnecessarily.

In the end, anything that helps people understand the life-threatening nature of food allergies, how to avoid a reaction, and how to treat a reaction, is positive press. Hopefully this morning’s segment encourages anyone who received questionable care regarding their allergy diagnosis to seek out a second opinion, and does not undermine the general public’s overall knowledge on the subject.


3 Comments on “Food Allergies in the News”

  1. Bev says:

    I agree with everything you said. I do get very frustrated with how many many people treat my sons life threatening allergies as trivial or as me “making a fuss”. Also when people say oh yes I understand I am allergic to ……..whatever because that food “disagrees” with them. Many people clearly still do not understand the difference between allergy and intolerance and I guess anything that raises awareness of allergies can only be a good thing. However I live in Belgium (but am British) and I think awareness of allergies it extremely bad in Belgium.

  2. Bev says:

    In the UK it is pretty good, there are lots of “free from” foods available and most schools have nut free policies anyway. The doctors we have here are amazing though.

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