Food Allergy Myths and Facts
Jul 01, 2020 Victoria Pelham
Products aimed at curbing food allergies are everywhere these days, from gluten intolerance to the rise in milk alternatives. But the latest food trends and products don't always match the science.
Food allergies can be serious, but they don't have to be scary, says Christina Fasulo, a clinical dietitian at Cedars-Sinai.
"A lot of people confuse the difference between an allergy versus just an intolerance."
There's a wealth of misinformation—especially on the internet—about food allergies, so we asked Christina to clarify some of the most common misconceptions.
MYTH: Sensitivity is the same thing as a food allergy
"A lot of people confuse the difference between an allergy versus just an intolerance," Christina says. "For the most part, intolerances aren't going to do any long-term harm."
An allergic reaction is caused when your immune system perceives a certain food or ingredient as a threat. In response, the immune system will let out immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, triggering the release of histamine and other substances.
A food intolerance does not involve the immune system but can mimic some of the milder food allergy symptoms, such as stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea and bloating.
MYTH: Gluten and lactose allergies are common
Less than 1% of the population is affected by celiac disease, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. This autoimmune disorder is caused by an immune response to attack gluten in the small intestine, damaging healthy cells in the process.
However, most people who've adopted a gluten-free diet suffer from an intolerance—not an allergy—to the gluten protein found in wheat, rye and barley, Christina notes.
People sometimes can be allergic to the proteins in wheat, which contains gluten, but the remaining patients who experience abdominal discomfort when consuming gluten are simply sensitive to the ingredient, she explains.
Likewise, lactose intolerance is not an allergy. It's caused by a shortage of the enzyme lactase that breaks down sugar when digesting cow's milk and dairy products, but it doesn't trigger the immune system.
People with food intolerances can benefit from diet modifications, Christina adds.
FACT: Food allergies are ticking upward
There is growing evidence that the number of people suffering from allergies is on the rise. Food allergies likely affect nearly 4% of adults and 6% of children, Christina says.
Eight foods are responsible for 90% of reactions, according to the Food and Drug Administration, including:
- Crustacean shellfish such as crab, lobster and shrimp
- Tree nuts such as almonds, walnuts and pecans
FACT: Food allergies can cause severe reactions
"Food allergies can be life-threatening," Christina says.
A severe allergic reaction can include difficulty breathing, a feeling that your throat is closing, swelling in your lips, tongue or throat, hoarseness or trouble speaking.
Acute reactions can also cause changes to your heartbeat, dizziness and light-headedness, skin cooling, loss of consciousness and seizures. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, go to the nearest emergency room or call 911.
FACT: Avoiding foods you're potentially allergic to could help address the problem, but it's best to see a specialist
If you experience mild allergic reactions to food, contact your primary care physician, who can refer you to see an allergist. Avoid the trigger food in the meantime, and know food products can contain ingredients that unexpectedly trigger allergic responses.
An allergist will take your history and might order skin tests and a food challenge and/or blood tests that can detect the presence of food-specific IgE antibodies.
If it's been a long time since you've had an allergic reaction, don't just assume you're in the clear, Christina cautions. People can outgrow some allergies such as eggs and wheat, while others such as peanuts, fish and shellfish are more commonly lifelong.
It is recommended that people get evaluated by a board-certified allergist before consuming a food they've been allergic to in the past.