Food allergies are far less prevalent than customers claim, study finds

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This means that nearly half of all people with a reported food allergy are misinterpreting their symptoms, the researchers say.

The report, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 19% of American adults believe they are allergic to one or more foods.

Common food allergy symptoms are hives, welling and chest pain. Food allergies are immune system reactions that are triggered because the body perceives certain foods as harmful.

To the untrained eye, other conditions can look a lot like allergic reactions.

"It is important to see a physician for appropriate testing and diagnosis before completely eliminating foods from the diet", lead study author Ruchi Gupta, from Anne & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago and Northwestern University, said in a statement. But these symptoms are not necessarily indicative of a food allergy.

The new estimates were based on survey responses from nearly 40,500 American adults who were asked if they had any diagnosed allergies, symptoms or hospitalizations. When projected onto the broader population, the team's results suggest that some 26 million American adults may be living with a food allergy. "That number is high", Gupta tells Amina Zafar of CBC News.

The study data indicate that the most prevalent food allergens among USA adults are shellfish, affecting 7.2 million adults; milk, affecting 4.7 million; peanut, affecting 4.5 million; tree nut, affecting 3 million; fin fish, affecting 2.2 million; egg, affecting 2 million; wheat, affecting 2 million; soy, affecting 1.5 million; and sesame, affecting 0.5 million.

"Quoted in United Kingdom newspaper, The Guardian, Ruchi Gupta, a professor of paediatrics at Northwestern University and a co-author of the research, said that the finding that many allergies began in adulthood was particularly alarming: "...because chances are they could eat the food and then all of a sudden they have a reaction to a food that they could previously tolerate - so what changed in their environment or in them that caused them to now develop this food allergy?"

Through online and phone surveys, more than 40,000 adults reported whether they had a food allergy. So while the findings show that food allergies are common, they're not quite as prevalent as we think.

The bottom line, according to Gupta, is that suspected allergic reactions should always be checked out by a medical professional. "If food allergy is confirmed, understanding the management is also critical, including recognizing symptoms of anaphylaxis and how and when to use epinephrine".