Common Food Allergy Myths

Robert A. Wood, M.D.
January 18, 2008

Food allergies trigger more than reactions. They can also initiate misinformation and misconceptions that may discourage food allergy sufferers from seeking help or inspire them to blame every ailment under the sun on food allergies. Here are the most common food allergy myths:

It’s nothing more than a stomachache. A stomachache is probably a simple case of indigestion, but it could be an early warning sign of the onset of food allergy. Without an accurate diagnosis, you’re at a higher risk of experiencing a more severe reaction later and being unprepared to deal with it.

A little taste can’t hurt. To your immune system, even a tiny amount of a problem food is enough to trigger an all-out attack. People with severe allergies can have life-threatening reactions when the same spatula used to serve a cookie containing the allergen is used to serve up their supposedly allergen-free cookie.

A tiny bit may actually help. Although some food allergy treatments call for exposing the immune system to increasing amounts of a known allergen to desensitize the immune system, trying to do this on your own is very dangerous.

Food allergies make me “hyper.” Food allergies are often blamed for psychiatric disorders, such as ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). Although food may play a role in the severity of the symptoms, food allergies are not the root cause or even a strong contributor.

Epinephrine (adrenaline) is a dangerous drug. Early treatment with an epinephrine injection can save your life in the event of a severe reaction. The fact is that epinephrine is a very safe drug, and for a huge majority of food allergy sufferers, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

You’re allergic to any food that causes problems. Foods can cause problems for all sorts of reasons, including other ingredients in the food, toxins, high concentrations of histamine, bacteria, and viruses. Don’t assume that just because a particular food gives you the collywobbles, that you’re allergic to that food.

Peanut allergy is the most common. Peanut may very well be the most common allergy in some populations, but the prevalence of a particular food allergy varies according to age and culture. Kids are more likely to be allergic to peanuts, milk, and eggs, for example, while adults are more prone to seafood allergies. People of Jewish decent have a higher prevalence of allergy to sesame. In Japan and other countries in which fish is a staple, fish allergy is more common.

If you weren’t allergic to it before, you can’t be allergic to it now. The onset of a food allergy is brought on by a genetic susceptibility and exposure to the problem food. The more exposure to the problem food, the higher the risk of developing an allergy to it if you’re susceptible.

Bona fide food allergies are rare. Approximately 7.5% of the population of the United States has a bona fide food allergy, and the incidence of food allergies seems to be on the rise.

I’m allergic to food additives. Food additives can trigger reactions, even severe reactions, but these are not allergic in nature. Reactions to food additives are chemical reactions that produce symptoms very similar and perhaps even identical to those of allergic reactions.

Remember: When you experience a reaction to something you’ve eaten or have been feeling under the weather for some time, don’t rely on misinformation and myths. Get thee to your doctor. Food Allergies for Dummies explains how to select the right doctor for diagnosing and treating food allergies, and how team up with the doctor to obtain an accurate diagnosis, avoid the foods that ail you, and treat reactions when avoidance maneuvers fail.

Dr. Wood is is Professor of Pediatrics and International Health and Chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland; Deputy Editor of the journal Pediatric Allergy and Immunology; and a board member of the American Board of Allergy and Immunology. His book, Food Allergies for Dummies, co-authored with Joe Kraynak, is filled with plain-spoken practical advice. Their Web site includes additional information.

This article was posted on January 18, 2008.