Time to stop mocking food allergies

Remember the story that said 30 per cent of Americans think they have a food allergy. It's not true.

It has become fashionable of late to mock food allergies as a "trendy" condition, a construct of over-protective parents or attention-seeking adults. I simply can't think of any other serious, sometimes life-threatening condition that is dissed more often.

Take last month, for instance. There we were smack in the middle of Food Allergy Awareness month: the Food Allergy Initiative in New York had organized a huge fundraising drive and pledges were pouring in for five runs across Canada, all in support of research.

Gwen Smith is the editor of Allergic Living magazine, a publication for those living with food and environmental allergies and celiac disease.

Then, on May 12, the well-regarded Journal of the American Medical Association published a review of several food allergy studies and concluded that the lack of a common definition of this disease and inconsistent test methods make diagnosis and management of food allergies difficult.

Hardly earth-shattering news to most people.

But here's where the dissing begins: A senior science reporter for The New York Times decided to write an article on the JAMA review, taking as her angle a new "fact" — that 30 per cent of the population "believe" they have food allergies, while "only" five per cent of adults and "only" eight per cent of kids actually do.   

At Allergic Living magazine, we were skeptical of that 30 per cent statistic. Think about it: That would mean about 93 million Americans (or three times the population of Canada) are claiming to have largely imaginary allergies.

Sure, some people confuse intolerance to certain foods or heartburn with a true food allergy. But 90 million?

Such is the clout of The New York Times, however, that within the week everyone in the media, from the CBC to the American networks, the Discovery Channel and an English website out of Beijing, was repeating that 30 per cent of Americans "think" they have food allergies — and that JAMA had said so.

You could practically hear the tsk-tsking about "picky eaters."

But if you, like me, have a couple of actual, diagnosed, serious food allergies, what can you do to counter the coverage? Do we have to get a T-shirt that says "I am allergic. Really"?

Such is life with the disease that gets no respect.

Junk figure

The 30 per cent figure, however, turns out to be junk. It does not appear in the JAMA review of studies and now, a couple of weeks later, nobody seems to want ownership of it.

One person's delicacy, a shellfish soup, can be another's trip to the emergency ward. Canada's 10 top food allergies are: Fish, shellfish, sesame, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat and sulphites. (Canadian Press)

Here at Allergic Living, our senior editor emailed Dr. Marc Riedl of UCLA, one of the lead authors of that paper.

Had he given such a statistic to the New York Times' reporter Gina Kolata during their interview?

He wrote back and said that the Times was "sloppy with the details" of the figures, especially the 30 per cent "believing" they have allergies.

He acknowledges that some countries seem to have high "belief levels." But, at the worst, he said, "most data suggest that self-reported food allergy is in the 10 to 17 per cent range for the U.S."

But even that information wasn't in the actual JAMA study, which everyone was citing.

So I wrote to Gina Kolata and asked where she got the 30 per cent figure. Dr. Reidl, she replied.

He said, she said. Only her tape recorder knows for sure.

But this isn't an academic question about journalistic accuracy.

The issue I have with articles like Kolata's, as well as that infamous Harvard professor's column from late 2008, which used personal anecdotes to charge that food allergy's rise was "hysteria," is the damage they do to food allergy as a legitimate disease.

It is clearly a condition that needs to be taken seriously in schools, workplaces and restaurants because of the potential for severe reactions, including death.

It is also something that desperately needs more research funding.

More research

As I write this, there is extraordinary, innovative work underway that could lead to the first-ever treatment for food allergy, perhaps even a vaccine (to be delivered as a suppository).

But this research takes money, lots of it, since the immune system is a complex and less than predictable beast.

Thanks to an experimental study at Duke University last year, a handful of children with severe peanut allergies, such as Ashlyn Chadwick, 4, shown here with her mother Karen, now can eat them without worry. Scientists have retrained their immune systems so they're allergy-free. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

Mangled facts do not help when it comes to the application for funds, and they certainly don't help the public's understanding of a disease that's a modern phenomenon.

Unfortunately, the New York Times and its media followers missed the real news on the rates of food allergy.

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the allergists' bible, has just published two long-awaited prevalence studies in its June issue.

The one on U.S. rates for peanut and tree nut allergies, emanating from the highly respected Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, finds that peanut and nut allergies have more than tripled in children between 1997 and 2008. (The combined rate of those two top allergies alone was 2.1 per cent of kids in 2008.)

The second article contained the results of what's called the SCAAALAR survey, Canada's first official tally of allergies to peanuts, nuts, sea foods and sesame.

In this country, the rates for peanut and tree nut allergies were comparable to the U.S., even slightly higher in kids. 

Dr. Ann Clarke, a professor at McGill University and one of SCAAALAR's lead investigators, recently observed that between six and eight per cent of Canadians have a real food allergy.

Even at the low end, that's about two million Canadians. The higher figure translates to just over one in every 12 people.

Sorry, NYT, but there's no "only" to qualify a rate like that. Let's make that, wow, as much as eight per cent of the Canadian population has a food allergy, a disease that can threaten your life.

Now that cries out for respect. Not to mention some answers as to why we have so much food allergy today, especially in children.

There are plenty of theories, but nothing definitive to solve the puzzle. It's time we stopped bugging the scientists with skepticism, moved past the eye-rolling, and let them get on with the answers.