Debunking Food Allergy Myths
Learn to tell the facts from the fancy
Illustration By Victoria Marcelino
With today’s abundance of professional websites, blogs and social media related to the medical field, there is no shortage of advice out there for whatever ails you. Misinformation, though, can be a dangerous thing, particularly when it comes to food allergies. Here are the facts behind a few commonly held beliefs.
Myth: Food allergies are luck of the draw. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why one person develops them while another does not.
Fact: Food allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to a protein in food. What causes some people to develop food allergies is still not fully understood, but “there clearly is a genetic component,” says Susan A. Schaefer, MD, an allergist and immunologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Bedford and Concord. Other factors, such as the individual’s environment, might also play a role.
Myth: Food allergies are not a big deal; it is much ado about nothing.
Fact: This myth is dangerously false. A severe allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis, can come on quickly and can be fatal.
Myth: If you have a food allergy, all you can do is avoid eating that food.
Fact: Unfortunately, this one is pretty much true. “There is no FDA-approved treatment that is preventative,” Schaefer says. Those who have a severe food allergy should, in addition to carefully reading ingredient labels and not eating the allergenic food, carry an epinephrine self-injection pen or an antihistamine medication such as Benadryl in case they accidentally ingest the food they are allergic to.
Myth: Food allergies are extremely common.
Fact: They aren’t as common as you might think. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, although 25 percent of Americans think they have a food allergy, only about 8 percent of children and 2 percent of adults actually do. Food allergies can develop at any age but are most prevalent in young children, who are most often allergic to cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, soy and nuts. In adults, the most common food allergies are to nuts, fish and shellfish, says Amit Kumar, MD, a board-certified allergist and immunologist at Southern New Hampshire Asthma & Allergy in Nashua.
Myth: If you experience discomfort such as bloating, cramps, gas or diarrhea after eating a certain type of food, that means you are allergic to the food.
Fact: Not necessarily. People sometimes mistake a sensitivity to a food for a true allergy, especially because the symptoms overlap. Food allergy symptoms usually appear within two hours of eating — sometimes within minutes — and include hives, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, labored breathing, chest pain and swelling of the lips, tongue or throat. In young children, a food allergy might bring on eczema, which takes longer to develop. Signs of food sensitivity or intolerance often take several hours or longer to appear, and can include gas, bloating, cramps, diarrhea and headaches.
Myth: Food allergies can go away.
Fact: True. In fact, 80 percent of egg, milk, soy and wheat allergies will subside by age 5, Kumar says. Nut and shellfish allergies and allergies that develop in adulthood are more likely to persist.
Myth: Since food allergies can go away, you should try the food again from time to time.
Fact: True — with a big caveat: “Trying it again should happen only under the supervision of an allergist,” Schaefer says. Doctors will usually perform tests to gauge the safety of reintroducing a food to an allergic person, after which they may try an in-office “food challenge.”
Myth: Gluten-free food is everywhere, so an awful lot of people must be allergic to gluten.
Fact: Some people, such as those who have a wheat allergy or celiac disease, must be careful to steer clear of gluten. Many who experience discomfort when they eat gluten, though, are not truly allergic to it, but rather have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, according to Schaefer.
Myth: One bite won’t hurt.
Fact: If a person is truly and strongly allergic to a food, one bite or even a trace amount of a food can cause a dangerous reaction. “A trace amount is all it takes,” Schaefer says. “Even an amount so small that you cannot taste it or see it can be enough to trigger a reaction.”
Myth: Just smelling a food that you are allergic to can cause a reaction.
Fact: Most often, a food must be ingested to cause an allergic reaction. “In general, smelling will not be enough,” Schaefer says. “If someone is sitting across the table from you eating peanut butter and you are allergic to it and you can smell it,” she says, “that is not going to be a problem.” There are exceptions, however: cooking fumes from fish, for example, carry proteins that can trigger a reaction in allergic individuals, Schaefer says.
Myth: A food is less allergenic if it has been cooked.
Fact: It depends on the food and the person. Some people who cannot tolerate raw milk or the allergens in eggs, for example, can consume cooked forms of those foods, especially if the foods are cooked thoroughly and at a high temperature, Kumar says. Cooking can in some instances denature or change the protein in food that triggers an allergic reaction.
Myth: People’s allergic reactions to a food will be more severe each time they eat that food.
Fact: This isn’t necessarily the case, but, according to Kumar, the problem is that future reactions cannot be predicted. Further, various factors can influence the outcome. For example, your reaction might change if you have a smaller or larger amount of the food than you have had before, or your immune system might have changed since your last exposure to the food.