Liliya Rodnikova, Stocksy

How Common Are Food Allergies? Science Says People Are Confusing Food Allergies With Food Intolerance

In many restaurants these days, you can find tasty choices to fit just about any dietary need. Gluten-free pastries adorn bakery shelves, dairy-free flavors are popping up in ice cream shops, and icons denoting soy-free or nut-free dishes are becoming more common on restaurant menus. For people who have serious food allergies, these kinds of options can mean the difference between satisfying their hunger on-the-go and having to stick to cooking at home. But how common are food allergies, anyway? According to a new study, they actually might be slightly less common than you'd think.

The study, published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, surveyed over 40,000 adults about their eating and lifestyle habits, and found that, while one in 10 adults in the U.S. has a food allergy, almost one in five thinks they have a food allergy, but don't. Those who believe they have an allergy without a doctor's confirmation might just have a food intolerance or another food-related health condition, suggested the study's lead author Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Hold up, though: "Food intolerance" and "food allergy" sound like two different ways of identifying the same thing, right? Wrong. According to Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist/immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network (who was not involved in the new study), the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance could actually be the difference between life and death in some cases. "A food allergy is a reaction involving your immune system and can be life-threatening," she tells Elite Daily in an email, "whereas an intolerance is more like a side effect of a food and you can still eat the food in smaller quantities and it is not a life-threatening reaction."

For example, someone who's lactose-intolerant can't eat lactose in some forms, but can still ingest it in other forms, Dr. Parikh explains. Someone with an actual milk allergy, on the other hand, cannot tolerate lactose in any form, and ingesting some could lead to hives, rashes, vomiting, trouble breathing, or anaphylaxis, says the allergist.

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One possible reason why someone might be confused about whether or not they have an actual food allergy is that, sometimes, a food can have an effect on how you feel without threatening your life, says Dr. Parikh. "For example, gluten and carbohydrates make most people feel bloated or sluggish, but that is a known feature of the food, rather than a gluten allergy such as celiac disease," she tells Elite Daily, "which can be very dangerous for the patient to continue eating gluten, as it is an autoimmune condition."

If you suspect that a certain food isn't sitting well with your body, Dr. Parikh suggests you keep an eye out for symptoms on your skin, as that is where almost 90 percent of people notice food-allergy reactions, she explains, such as hives, rash, itching, or swelling. People with more severe food allergies, Dr. Parikh adds, might also experience breathing difficulties, wheezing, vomiting, and/or loss of consciousness, for which you should seek immediate medical attention.

Unfortunately, even if you're the kind of person who could stomach everything as a child, it's certainly not impossible that you could develop a food allergy as an adult. In fact, Dr. Parikh says, "fish and shellfish allergies are most common to develop as an adult." And get this: According to the JAMA study's data, shellfish was the top food allergy, affecting 7.2 million adults — though the study authors noted that further research is needed to understand exactly why that is.

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If you suspect that you might actually have a food allergy, be sure to book an appointment with a board-certified allergist for testing, says Dr. Parikh, instead of trying to self-diagnose. "There are a lot of 'food allergy' tests that do not have scientific evidence behind them," she cautions. Good to know, right?