Are Most People Mistaken About Food Allergies?

A New York Times article enters controversial territory

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If you've ever been to a summer barbecue or a soccer game with a suburban parent, you know: food allergies are the cause of real, pervasive concern. That's why a recent New York Times article is likely to bring strife to gluten-free households everywhere (and smug satisfaction to longtime skeptics): "Many who think they have food allergies actually do not," reads the article, which looks at "new reports, commissioned by the federal government."

The Times' Gina Kolata explains that while "the true incidence of food allergies is only about 8 percent for children and less than 5 percent for adults ... about 30 percent of the population believe they have food allergies." Part of the problem, of course, is that the term "food allergy" and the tests needed to diagnose it are poorly defined, while there's also a fair amount of layperson's "confusion is over what is a food allergy and what is a food intolerance." The main difference: "Allergies involve the immune system, while intolerances generally do not. For example, a headache from sulfites in wine is not a food allergy. It is an intolerance. The same is true for lactose intolerance."

One would think, given how furiously some people defend their dietary peculiarities, this article would have produced an uproar. In fact, those few bloggers who responded seem more inclined to the "told you so" retort. For now at least, the skeptics appear to have a monopoly on the conversation.

  • Provides Good Middle Ground  "On the subject of food allergies," writes Amanda Marcotte at Slate, "there are two major camps: The skeptics who believe it's all in your head, and the believers who get wildly defensive when they come across skeptics, reminding everyone in sight that food allergies are a very big deal." Yet this article "gives the moderates a boost." One complaint she has:
Riedl argues that people call themselves "allergic" to food that simply gives them indigestion, something that will no doubt cheer many skeptics. However, Riedl also rolls up people who have legitimate intolerances into the "not a food allergy" category, which seems a little unfair ... Many people simply don't know the difference, but that doesn't mean that their negative reactions to lactose or sulfites aren't real.
  • 'Oh You Have Food Allergies?' asks perennially snarky Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, pointing to The New York Times article. "No you don't. You disgust me."
  • 'Many "Food Allergies" May Be Bogus,' summarizes Glenn Reynolds. "This doesn't surprise me," he adds.
  • Yep, We Already Knew This, confirms Jeanneette Rivera-Lyles of the Moms at Work blog in the Orlando Sentinel. "A lot of us have been told that our child is allergic to something they eat," she writes, but her experience is that that isn't always the case. Now this article backs her up, saying that "food allergies are often misunderstood and frequently misdiagnosed."
  • This Is Like My Horse?  NPR's Joanne Silberner, searching for material, apparently, compares medical confusion over food allergies to veterinary confusion over her horse's allergy "to the dust and molds in the hay at the ripe old age of 23."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.