Food allergies are a hot topic in the news right now. According to a recent CDC report, the number of people with a diagnosed food allergy had risen by 18 percent over the last decade. But a recent report by the American Medical Association suggests that the incidence of true food allergies may be far lower than what is generally believed. All of these contradictory reports about food allergies may be leading to a great deal of confusion for the average American consumer and for doctors trying to treat these conditions. A recent Harris Interactive/HomeFree study indicates that a good deal of people (43 percent) think gluten is an allergy, like wheat or shellfish. Just 3 percent of Americans can correctly identify all four of the listed common food allergens (nuts, dairy, eggs and wheat.)
One major issue is semantics. A food allergy is not the same as a food intolerance. Food allergies can be life-threatening, and often require treatment with epinephrine and an ER visit, while a food intolerance is generally not, though the symptoms can make one feel extremely miserable for days. (I know the latter condition personally, because medical tests have concluded that I am gluten, lactose and casein intolerant. When I have a reaction, it feels like a cross between the stomach flu and a hangover.)
However, conditions that are not recognized as true food allergies can be very serious. While Celiac Disease, a genetic, autoimmune condition triggered by the ingestion of the gluten protein found in wheat, rye and barley is not immediately life threatening, if one continues to consume gluten their rate of developing intestinal lymphoma can rise 50% above the general population’s rate. Celiacs also often suffer from serious malabsorption issues, due to damage of the intestinal lining, leading to a variety of ailments associated with nutritional deficiencies.
As the CNN article points out the medical community and their approach to treating food allergies and related conditions is an “inexact science.” Procedures like food challenges, where the patient is ordered to eat a suspected offending food, can be a miserable, potentially life-threatening experience. Skin pinprick testing is not foolproof. Elimination diets can be helpful, but many find such diets difficult to follow and results may be inconclusive.
While the medical community struggles to diagnose true food allergies versus a food intolerance or food sensitivity, it is important for people to understand how to identify and treat food allergies, because of the potentially life-and-death situation involved. This is especially true for parents, teachers, restaurant workers and anyone who deals with the public and the consumption of food. At the same time, we should not overlook the conditions of food intolerance or food sensitivity, which can have serious long-term health effects if not managed properly.
Do you or someone in your family have a food allergy or food intolerance? How do you cope with this condition? Do you have advice for others that have just been diagnosed?