Top 7 Myths About Food Allergies

Living with a food allergy can be hard enough without the misunderstanding and the stigma. Here, we debunk some common myths about food allergies

Picky eaters. Attention seekers. Alarmists. Food police. People roll their eyes at the person making special requests at the restaurant and lament that today’s kids can’t take peanut butter and jam sandwiches to school. What they don’t see is that millions of North Americans deal with the risks of food allergies — and a severe reaction could turn deadly.

Experts say most of us know someone who lives with a food allergy, but not everyone knows all that much about this health threat.

Here are some of the top myths surrounding the condition.

Myth: Food allergies are rare.
Once in a while we hear a story about a peanut ban in a school or new labels on food products, but we don’t hear as much about food allergies as we do about heart disease or Alzheimer’s.

Experts estimate that food allergies now affect about 1.8 million Canadians and 15 million Americans — that’s as much as five per cent of the population who have been clinically diagnosed. To put that number in perspective, Alzheimer’s disease affects about half a million Canadians and cardiovascular disease affects over 1.3 million Canadians. Some studies suggest that the incidence of food allergies is rising, but more investigation is needed.

allergy-cheeseMyth: You’re allergic to any food that makes you unwell.
Adding to the confusion surrounding food allergies is that the term often gets used when it doesn’t apply. There are a few reasons a food might not “agree” with us. In some cases, we’re missing an enzyme that lets us digest and absorb a food properly — like lactose intolerance, where people lack the enzyme to digest a naturally-occurring sugar found in dairy (lactase). Symptoms of food intolerance typically include nausea, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea and headache — and they can appear hours or days after consuming a food.

Another culprit: food sensitivities. Certain foods can trigger symptoms involved with conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome or migraines. Experts are still investigating food sensitivities, but symptoms aren’t caused by an allergen or lack of an enzyme.

However, only a food allergy involves the immune system. As with other allergens, the body mistakenly thinks an otherwise harmless substance — often a food protein, in this case — is a threat and mounts an attack. Histamine is released into the body causing a reaction that could be mild or severe.

Symptoms can appear immediately after consuming the food or up to a few hours later, and they don’t just include the gastrointestinal tract. Reactions can affect the skin (e.g. hives, itching, swelling or a rash), the respiratory tract (wheezing, difficulty breathing or congestion) and even the circulatory system (dizziness, racing pulse or fainting).

For more information, see our previous article on food allergies versus intolerances.

allergy-treatmentMyth: Food allergies aren’t dangerous.
Why does it matter if you’re dealing with a food intolerance, sensitivity or allergy? The first two can impact your lifestyle, but they’re rarely dangerous. Food allergies can be life threatening.

While experts say it’s a myth that reactions get worse each time you have one, there’s no telling how mild or severe any reaction will be. Some people can suffer severe reactions just from small amounts of a substance, and the reaction can turn deadly when the respiratory and circulatory systems are involved. A serious reaction known as anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock can cause a drop in blood pressure, severe swelling that blocks airways, rapid pulse and loss of consciousness. (Anaphylaxis Canada has a full list of symptoms on its Understanding the Basics page.)

While food allergy reactions can be mild, it’s important to get the right diagnosis for your “food issue” so you can spot the signs of a reaction and know how to treat it.

allergy-peanut

Myth: A little bit won’t hurt.
Is it safe to enjoy a little of a problem food? People with a food sensitivity or intolerance can sometimes get away with consuming a food in moderation — often symptoms occur when too much of a substance  accumulates in the body.

For people with food allergies, there’s no “safe” amount they can enjoy — even a trace amount could cause a reaction in some people. For example, using a utensil that has touched a food allergen could lead to trouble, as could kissing someone who has just consumed the allergen.

While ingesting a food allergen poses the greatest dangers, touching or inhaling the substance can cause a reaction too. For instance, some people who have severe peanut allergies can suffer a reaction from the smell (thanks to airborne particles). Cosmetics and personal grooming products whose ingredients include food allergens can also cause reactions.

allergy-childhoodMyth: Food allergies only develop in childhood.
Statistically speaking, food allergies are more common among children than adults, but that doesn’t mean people of all ages aren’t affected. Many children with certain food allergies (like milk, wheat, eggs and soy) outgrow them, but other food allergies stick around for life — or re-emerge in adulthood.

Think you’re safe because you’ve never experienced a food allergy? Experts don’t know why, but people can develop allergies at any age. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how the immune system functions, but experts do know there’s a link between food allergies and seasonal allergies in adults. People who suffer from allergies already have an immune system known to start reacting to certain substances. Current thinking suggests an allergy to pollen could later translate to an allergy to certain fruits or vegetables.

allergy-gluten-freeMyth: Food allergies are easy to diagnose yourself.
Home test kits and trendy avoidance diets (like going gluten-free) mean more people are trying to self-diagnosis their food concerns. Why is this a problem? Food poisoning, food intolerance, food allergies, food sensitivities, medication side effects and certain health conditions have similar symptoms — and it’s difficult to pinpoint the cause on your own.

Food allergies have a more immediate response, but the symptoms of other issues can appear hours or days later. Worse yet, sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s a particular food or a food additive (like sulphites) that’s the problem.

Experts warn home test kits can yield false positives, and further testing may be needed from a professional — like skin prick tests or clinical assessments that look at how allergens interact.

Experts also worry that people are unnecessarily cutting food groups and leaving nutritional gaps in their diet. Many people with genuine food allergies or intolerances need a little dietary guidance to make sure they are meeting their nutritional needs.

It’s especially important to talk to your doctor if you have a condition like asthma or heart disease which can exacerbate allergic reactions. In addition, some drugs can impact the effectiveness of medications used to treat reactions.

The bottom line: experts say to talk to your doctor about any adverse reaction to food that you’re experiencing.

allergy-labelMyth: It’s easy to avoid foods you’re allergic to.
While researchers investigate possible treatments for food allergies, avoiding the food allergen is the first line of defense. Many people mistakenly think it isn’t necessary to wear an alert bracelet, inform others of their allergies or carry emergency medication — all they have to do is stay away from the food allergen.

However, avoidance isn’t as easy as it sounds. Food labels have improved in recent years, but still only warn of the most common allergens such as soy, wheat, gluten, milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, mustard seed and sulphites. Reading food labels requires careful scrutiny because allergens don’t always go by obvious names — and sometimes manufacturers may change the formulation of familiar products. If you don’t have a common food allergy, you might not know if a food product has come into contact with your food allergen during preparation or manufacturing.

Even more troublesome is situations where there are no detailed labels — like the local bakery, restaurant or a friend’s dinner party. Experts recommend people who suffer from food allergies carry emergency medication, keep others informed of their allergies and wear a MedicAlert bracelet. (For more tips, see Protect yourself from food allergies.)

Food allergies can be dangerous, but serious reactions can be avoided with caution and awareness. While a ban on a certain food or a seemingly over-cautious label may seem unnecessary to some people, for others they can help ensure health and safety.

LEARN MORE
Looking for more information on food allergies? Here are a few resources to start:
Health Canada: Food Allergies
Anaphylaxis Canada
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology

Additional sources: Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada, the MayoClinic.com, MedicineNet.com, NHS Choices, Public Health Agency of Canada, Statistics Canada