May is Food Allergy Awareness Month. Although food allergy awareness is important year-round, May is the perfect time for us to answer common food allergy questions and address common misconceptions.
Today, we’ll debunk 17 of the biggest food allergy myths, and shed light on the truth about food allergies.
May is Food Allergy Awareness Month. There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding food allergies. Some people think food allergies are not as dangerous as they really are. And this myth can quickly create harmful situations for people who live with food allergies. Others think any symptom that comes from a food happens because of an allergy. But that’s not true, as there are other reasons that food could cause symptoms.
Today, we’ll debunk 17 of the biggest food allergy myths, and shed light on the truth about food allergies.
Myth: Food allergies are not real.
Fact: Food allergies are very real, and they’re a lot more common than many people think. They affect 1 in 13 children – that’s an average of 2 children in every classroom.
When someone has a food allergy, their immune system mistakenly treats proteins from a given food like bacteria, viruses, and other harmful invaders. If someone eats a food they’re allergic to, their immune system signals the body to defend against the food proteins, and triggers symptoms of an allergic reaction. These symptoms will usually emerge seconds to minutes after someone eats a food they’re allergic to, and almost always happen within two hours.
In babies and young children, hives and vomiting are the most common allergic reaction symptoms. Other symptoms that food allergies can cause are listed below.
Myth: Food allergies are not serious.
Fact: Food allergies are very serious. Sometimes, food allergies can cause severe reactions, or even life-threatening reactions, that require emergency attention.
Severe symptoms that food allergies can cause include difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat or tongue, hives spread all over the body, difficulty speaking or vocalizing, coughing, wheezing, dizziness, and fainting.
And when someone experiences severe food allergy symptoms in more than one organ system, this is known as anaphylaxis. People have died from food allergies – about 150-200 people die each year from anaphylactic food allergy reactions.
Food allergies are especially dangerous in situations where a child or teen accidentally eats food they’re allergic to, develops a severe allergic reaction, and can’t access epinephrine and emergency assistance quickly.
Myth: Peanut allergy is the “deadliest” food allergy.
Fact: All food allergies can be deadly, because any food allergy reaction could become severe or even life-threatening. Although peanut is the allergen most often associated with severe or fatal reactions, any food allergen has the potential to cause anaphylaxis.
Myth: Food allergy reactions get more and more severe as someone has more of them.
Fact: Any food allergy reaction could become severe, or even life-threatening – even if the reaction starts out with only mild symptoms. If someone has an allergic reaction to a food for the first time, that reaction could still be severe or turn severe.
And food allergic reactions don’t consistently get worse as someone has more of them. Someone can have different food allergy symptoms every time they have an allergic reaction, so there’s no way to predict whether a reaction will be mild, moderate, or severe. That’s why it’s vital to carry epinephrine at all times when your child has a food allergy, in case a severe reaction would occur.
Myth: You can stop a severe food allergy reaction with antihistamine.
Fact: Epinephrine is the only medicine that can treat a severe food allergy reaction and stop anaphylaxis.
If someone develops symptoms of a severe allergic reaction, inject epinephrine immediately. If someone develops anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction symptoms in more than one organ system), inject epinephrine immediately and then call 911.
Antihistamine (allergy medicines like Zyrtec) cannot stop a severe allergic reaction.
Myth: If someone has only ever had mild food allergy reactions, their food allergy is “mild.”
Fact: There’s no such thing as a “mild food allergy.” There are mild, moderate, and severe food allergy reaction symptoms. But any food allergy reaction could become severe, and there’s no way to predict if an allergic reaction will be mild, moderate, or severe. If someone only had mild food allergy reaction symptoms before, they could still potentially have a severe reaction in the future.
Myth: Peanut allergy is the most common food allergy in young children.
Fact: Although peanut allergies are a very common childhood food allergy, milk allergies are more common in young children than peanut allergies are. And egg allergies are just as common as peanut allergies among young children.
Milk allergies are also the most common cause of allergic reactions in schools.
Myth: You can only have a food allergy to certain foods.
Fact: The 9 foods responsible for the most food allergies are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, sesame, finned fish, and shellfish. These foods are responsible for around 90% of food allergies. But someone can develop an allergy to any food, including fruits and vegetables.
Myth: Someone with a food allergy can safely eat small amounts of a food they’re allergic to.
Fact: It’s always dangerous for someone to eat a food they’re allergic to, even in small amounts. Someone can develop an allergic reaction after eating even a tiny amount of a food that they’re allergic to. And that reaction could become severe or even life threatening. (In other words, the amount of “problem food” someone eats doesn’t determine the severity of the allergic reaction they’ll have.)
It’s never safe for your child to eat a food they’re allergic to, even if they didn’t show visible symptoms after accidentally eating a tiny amount of that food once.
People with food allergies must completely avoid the food(s) they are allergic to, even in trace amounts. They must also avoid cross-contact, or accidental mixing of an allergen into a previously safe food. This can occur when food equipment with trace amounts of the allergen touches a food. Cross-contact makes that previously safe food dangerous for someone with an allergy.
Myth: Food allergies are the same as food intolerances.
Fact: Food allergies and food intolerances are very different.
- Food allergies involve immune system reactions, but food intolerances don’t involve the immune system.
- Food allergies can cause symptoms in many different systems of the body, including hives, vomiting, and swelling. But food intolerances usually only cause GI symptoms.
- While food allergy symptoms take seconds to a few hours to appear, food intolerance symptoms appear hours to a few days after someone eats one of their “problem” foods.
- People with food allergies have allergic reactions after eating even tiny amounts of their “problem” food. But many people with food intolerances can eat small amounts of their “problem” food with no issue.
- And while food allergies can cause life-threatening anaphylaxis, food intolerances are not life-threatening.
Myth: Wheat allergies are the same as gluten sensitivity.
Fact: Wheat allergies are different from gluten sensitivity, and there is no such thing as an allergy to gluten.
A wheat allergy causes someone’s immune system to respond to a protein specifically found in wheat. Meanwhile, gluten sensitivities cause immune system responses to gluten, a protein that can be found in many grains. And those immune system responses are different from food allergy reaction symptoms – gluten sensitivities can’t cause life-threatening anaphylaxis
Even though gluten is present in wheat, it also shows up in multiple other grains, including rye and barley. So, gluten isn't a specific food protein.
Myth: Any symptom that emerges after someone eats a food is because of a food allergy.
Fact: There are several other reasons a child could develop a symptom from a food. Often, children get GI symptoms after eating a food because of a food intolerance, not an allergy. They might also develop symptoms such as gas or hyperactivity, or end up with GI symptoms of a foodborne illness, because of a food they eat. Or, they might react negatively (say, they might gag) because they have an aversion to a given food.
Myth: If you cook a food, you’ll always make it “less allergenic” because someone’s body won’t detect the altered proteins.
Fact: Cooking a food doesn’t reliably alter the food proteins enough to make it safe for everyone with an allergy to that food. Most of the time, when someone is allergic to a food, their body will still detect the proteins of that food when it is cooked or baked. Occasionally, some children who are allergic to egg can tolerate baked egg, and some children who are allergic to milk can tolerate baked milk. But this isn’t the case for everyone with egg and milk allergies.
Myth: Kids will never outgrow their food allergies.
- Milk and egg allergies are outgrown the most often. Most children outgrow these allergies by their teenage years.
- Wheat and soy allergies are also often outgrown by the time a child reaches age 10.
- But peanut allergies are less likely to be outgrown (only 20% of kids outgrow a peanut allergy).
Myth: All allergic reaction-causing ingredients must be highlighted on food labels.
Fact: Under U.S. food allergen labeling laws, only the 9 most common allergens (the 9 foods and food groups responsible for the most food allergies) must be clearly listed and highlighted in plain language on labels. These foods are cow’s milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, and sesame.
But many people are allergic to foods outside this “big 9” list, such as celery, corn, pumpkin, sunflower seeds, mustard, and fruits. And someone could develop an allergy to any food.
If someone’s food allergy is to a food other than the 9 most common allergens, the food they’re allergic to doesn’t have to be highlighted or even listed clearly on the label. And less common allergens can often show up in surprising places, so it can be challenging to avoid an allergen when buying packaged foods.
Myth: It’s easy to avoid the foods someone’s allergic to if those foods are highlighted on food labels.
Fact: It’s often very difficult for people with food allergies – and their families – to avoid the foods they or their loved ones are allergic to. This is true even when someone has an allergy to a food covered under the labeling laws, because the labels only apply to packaged foods.
When someone eats at a restaurant, goes to a friend’s house, or even encounters a situation where food is served at school, it can be difficult to know if a food contains their allergen because prepared restaurant foods and homemade foods don’t have to be labeled. They have to ask someone about the food and emphasize their allergies, and avoid the food if they can’t be certain it’s safe.
And even with packaged foods, allergens can often show up in surprising places. So, it’s vital that people with food allergies (and their families) read food labels multiple times before eating or serving a food, to make sure it’s safe.
Myth: Delaying the feeding of common allergens for 1-3 years is a good idea.
Fact: For healthier outcomes, you shouldn’t delay feeding your child common allergens for the first 1-3 years of life. Although doctors used to recommend delaying allergen feeding for 1-3 years, that approach was not supported by science.
Instead, you should introduce allergens early and often, starting in baby’s first year. Babies aren’t born with food allergies. And studies have shown that the first year of life is the safest time to feed these foods because if your baby does have an allergy, their reaction is less likely to be severe.
Most importantly, feeding your infant common allergens (like peanut and egg) in their first year of life can help your child’s body recognize these foods as just foods, and promote a future where they’re free to eat all yummy foods without worry.
Landmark studies and recent medical guidelines consistently recommend early allergen feeding. Most notably, the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) guidelines recommend that “both peanut and egg should be introduced around 6 months of life, but not before 4 months,” and state that consistently feeding peanut and egg is best for promoting food freedom and lifelong healthier outcomes.
All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
See the FDA Peanut Allergy Qualified Health Claim at the bottom of our homepage.
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