Food allergies are a big concern for many Americans and this week, advocates, families and individuals with food allergies are calling attention to their efforts.  At its inception, the National Peanut Board recognized that food allergies are an important issue and the Board has consistently funded research, education and outreach to help further the cause to find a cure and keep people with food allergies safe.  We also work to ensure that people have the facts about food allergies and to dispel common myths.

As a registered dietitian with a background in clinical pediatrics and foodservice, I’ve worked with individuals, families, healthcare and foodservice professionals to provide education and guidance on managing food allergies for years.  Here are five common myths that I’ve heard often and the truth about food allergies:

Myth #1: Most people have a food allergy.

Sometimes the media attention on food allergies makes it seem like everyone has a food allergy, but according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), about 6% of children and more than 3% of adults have food allergies (1).  People often think they have a food allergy when they really have intolerance or some other health condition.  It is important to see a board certified allergist for diagnosis if a food allergy is suspected.  If a food allergy is diagnosed, total avoidance is the only treatment and is essential to keep individuals with food allergy safe.

Myth #2: Peanuts are the most common food allergen.

More than 160 different foods have been indicated to cause food allergy (2).  The major food allergens in the US include milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, shellfish, fish, wheat, and soy.  The most common food allergen for children is milk, followed by egg, whereas shellfish and fish allergies are common in adults.  Less than 1% of the total population is allergic to peanuts, which means that 99% of people can enjoy nutritious peanuts without any problem (1).

Myth #3: Food allergies will always lead to life-threatening reactions.

The truth is that every reaction is unpredictable.  A small amount of an allergen may cause a severe and life-threatening reaction, but there is no way to predict how severe a reaction will be.  Every reaction should be taken seriously.  Allergies may get worse over time, but some people actually outgrow their allergies and develop tolerance, including about 20% of those with peanut allergy (3).

Myth #4: My family member has a food allergy, so I must have one too.

While people who have a first degree relative could have a slightly higher chance of developing food allergy, there’s no guarantee this will be the case.  If an individual has a first degree relative with food allergy and/or symptoms of food allergy, she should be tested by a board certified allergist before adopting a restrictive diet, since unnecessary restrictions can lead to nutritional deficiencies (4).

Myth #5: The smell of peanuts or touching peanut butter can cause a life-threatening reaction.

Research has shown that odors don’t cause food allergy reactions.  Life-threatening reactions are caused by actually ingesting the food that causes the allergic response, not by smelling a potential allergen.  Skin contact with food allergens will also not cause a life threatening reaction, although they may cause skin irritation and could be dangerous if rubbed into eyes, nose or mouth.  Research has shown that proper hand washing is the key to prevention, since soap and water remove allergenic protein from surfaces, including hands (5).

Food allergies are a serious issue and education is the first line of defense.  For more information about food allergies and Food Allergy Awareness Week, visit Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (now FARE).

References:

  1. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.  Food Allergy Statistics.  Accessed on May 8, 2012.
  2. FDA.  Food Allergies: Reducing the Risks.  Accessed on May 8, 2012.
  3. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Food Allergy: Tips to Remember.  Accessed on May 8, 2012.
  4. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy in the US.  Accessed on May 8, 2012.
  5. Perry, T., et al. Distribution of peanut allergen in the environment.  Journal of Clinical Immunology.  May 2004. P. 973-976