Food allergies are on the rise in America, with record numbers of adults reporting them. But could part of this increase be due to misdiagnoses? A new study published in JAMA Network Open suggests that people may believe they have a food allergy when they are actually experiencing something else — a food intolerance maybe, or another condition causing their symptoms.
The study, which surveyed 40,443 U.S. adults, showed that 19 percent of adults believed they had a food allergy, such as an allergy to tree nuts or shellfish. However, after analyzing these adults’ symptoms and experiences, researchers discovered that just 10.8 percent of these adults actually had one. That means nearly half of the self-reported allergies were likely to be incorrect.
Researchers found that many participants reporting a food allergy really had symptoms more in line with those of seasonal allergies or food intolerance. People with intolerances to a substance such as gluten, for example, were self-reporting their condition as an allergy.
Experts believe these results may be indicative of a public misunderstanding. Some Americans seem confused about what an allergy really is.
“An allergy occurs when your immune system is involved,” explains Dr. Purvi Parikh, allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network to The Daily Meal. “It can be dangerous, as your immune system forms antibodies against a particular food. If you are exposed, it can cause a life-threatening reaction.”
Food intolerance, on the other hand, is more like a side effect experienced after eating a certain food. For instance, if you get stomachaches after eating almonds, you may be intolerant to almonds.
“In these cases, it is not always necessary to avoid the food,” Dr. Parikh says. “Often, intolerance is dose-dependent, meaning a person can handle eating the food in some forms or amounts but not all. It can also be an issue with digestion or breakdown. For example, lactose intolerance is due to the lack of an enzyme used to break down milk. But this is very different from a milk allergy, which is an immune response and in some patients can be life threatening.”
The results of the study were self-reported surveys, which come with some limitations. The survey respondents were not given diagnostic tests for food allergies, which could have strengthened results. However, the study still implies a need for more education.
“If you suspect you have an allergy, it is best to be tested by a board certified allergist,” Dr. Parikh says. “A true food allergy is managed very differently from an intolerance and emergency measures need to be taken for the former.”
You can also continue to become informed about the differences, and know the signs and symptoms of a true food allergy to look out for in advance.