Food Allergy Myths and Facts

Food Allergy Basics

Be sure to check food labels if your kids have food allergies.
Be sure to check food labels if your kids have food allergies. Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images

There are many myths out there about food allergies, from the belief that parents overreact about food allergies and they don't exist, to that kids are allergic to everything.

Food allergies are common; but not as common as some parents believe.

That leads us to one of the first myths about food allergies:

1) Any symptom that you have after eating a food is a food allergy.

Food allergies do occur in up to 6 to 8% of children, but many more parents think that their children have reactions to foods that aren't really caused by allergic reactions.

Instead, these children may have a lactose intolerance, food aversion, or other symptoms that have nothing to do with allergies, such as gas and hyperactivity.

Unlike food intolerances, true food allergies occur when a food triggers an immune system mediated reaction. This reaction involves the antibody IgE (immunoglobulin E), which causes certain immune system cells to release histamine, leading to most of the symptoms of a food allergy.

2) Only certain foods can cause food allergies.

It is true that only certain foods are most likely to cause food allergies, but children can be allergic to almost any food, including many fruits and vegetables (oral allergy syndrome). The foods that are most likely to cause food allergies, so called allergy foods, include eggs, milk, peanuts, nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.

3) Kids won't outgrow their food allergies.

It depends on what they are allergic to, but kids actually can outgrow many food allergies if they completely avoid them (elimination diet) for two or three years.

For example, more than 85% of children outgrow allergies to milk, but fewer outgrow allergies to peanuts, tree nuts or seafood.

Still, about 20% of children may outgrow their allergy to peanuts.

4) Peanuts are the most common food allergy in children.

Peanut allergies may be the most likely to cause life-threatening allergic reactions (anaphylaxis), but a cow's milk allergy is the most common food allergy in young children.

5) A positive antibody level on a blood allergy test means you are allergic to one or more foods.

This is not necessarily true. Some of the newer allergy tests that have become popular, including the RAST and Immunocap RAST, don't give a simple "yes or no" answer about your child's allergies. Instead, they give an antibody level, which can range from negative or low to very high. Children with negative or low antibody levels and even moderate levels may not actually be allergic to those foods, so those test results must be interpreted based on the symptoms the child's has when he eats those foods.

For example, if RAST testing indications low levels of antibodies for egg whites, but your child eats eggs every day and never has symptoms of a food allergy, then he likely isn't allergic to eggs.

Interpreting these allergy tests incorrectly is one reason that some kids get diagnosed with multiple food allergies or are told that they are "allergic to everything."

6) Cooking a food makes it less allergenic (less likely to cause an allergy).

Proteins are the part of the food that triggers an allergic reaction and some people believe that cooking a food alters the protein enough so that your child won't be allergic to it anymore. That is why, some believe, some kids can be allergic to eggs, but still eat a cake that was made with eggs.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, most foods "can still cause reactions even after they are cooked," although "some allergens (most often from fruit and vegetables) cause allergic reactions only if eaten before being cooked."

7) If you are allergic to a food, it is OK to sometimes eat small amounts if that doesn't trigger a reaction.

This is a dangerous myth, since just because your child didn't have a reaction after eating a small amount of a food he is allergic to one time, that doesn't mean that he won't have a more serious reaction next time. Also, since the best way to outgrow a food allergy is to practice a strict elimination diet, in which you don't eat the food for a few years, eating small amounts of the food from time to time may decrease your child's chances of outgrowing his food allergies.

8) Food allergies aren't real.

Food allergies are real. And yes, some people are so allergic to foods that they have reactions if foods are simply made using the same utensils or if they touch the food and don't actually eat it.

Because food allergies are so serious, be sure to respect a child's food allergies and alert parents and children when a food might have been made with a food that they are allergic to.

9) It is easy to avoid foods your child is allergic to.

While it may be easy to avoid the whole foods that your child is allergic to, like milk and eggs, the real problem is that many of these types of foods are ingredients in other foods. So the hard part about avoiding allergic foods is trying to figure out what is actually in the foods that you are thinking about feeding to your allergic child.

Reading food labels of processed foods and asking about the ingredients of foods when you go to a restaurant, your child eats out at school, or eats at the home of a friend or family member can help detect hidden ingredients that your child may be allergic to.

10) Food allergies aren't serious.

Food allergies can be deadly.

Each year, there are about 150 deaths a year from severe allergic reactions from foods.

In many cases, a younger child or teenager with a known food allergy, might eat the food they are allergic to and may not survive a life-threatening allergic reaction in the following situations:

  • at school in a cooking class (a 16-year-old who ate a walnut in Chinese food)
  • eating a cookie on a school outing (a 9-year-old allergic to peanuts)
  • eating bread at home (a 16-year-old allergic to milk)
  • eating an egg roll (a-12-year old allergic to peanuts)
  • eating a wrap (an 18-year-old allergic to peanuts)
  • eating a cookie at a friend's home (a 17-year-old allergic to peanuts)
  • eating candy at a friend's home (a 17-year-old allergic to hazelnuts)
  • eating peanut butter at camp (a 17-year-old allergic to peanuts)
  • eating peanuts at home (a 5-year-old allergic to peanuts)
  • drinking milk at camp (a 9-year-old allergic to milk)
  • eating an egg roll at a restaurant (a 14-year-old allergic to peanuts)
  • drinking a protein shake at home (a 17-year-old allergic to milk)
  • drinking a chocolate mix drink at home (a 7-year-old allergic to milk)
  • eating a candied apple at a carnival (an 11-year-old allergic to peanuts)
  • eating a wrap at a fast food restaurant in a mall (a 13-year-old allergic to peanuts)
  • eating a cookie at a friend's home (a 16-year-old allergic to peanuts)

These are among some of the cases reported in a registry maintained by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and are just a few of the deaths from food allergies that occurred between over the years.

If your child has a food allergy, be sure to teach him how to identify and avoid foods that he should avoid, and make sure that he always has an EpiPen available in case he has a serious allergic reaction.



Sources:

Kliegman: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed.

Adkinson: Middleton's Allergy: Principles and Practice, 6th ed.

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Tips to Remember: Food allergy

Early clinical predictors of remission of peanut allergy in children. Ho MH - J Allergy Clin Immunol - 01-MAR-2008; 121(3): 731-6

Further fatalities caused by anaphylactic reactions to food, 2001-2006. Bock SA - J Allergy Clin Immunol - 01-APR-2007; 119(4): 1016-8

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