Are Your Food Allergies for Real?

Half of patients who think they have a food allergy are wrong, study says.

ByABC News
May 12, 2010, 12:17 PM

May 12, 2010— -- Food allergies are serious business -- just ask 18-year-old Dane of Charlotte, North Carolina. With milk, eggs, peanuts, shellfish, chicken, potatoes, and garlic -- and many other foods -- on his "do not eat" list, he suffers from true, life-threatening food allergies.

To avoid a trip to the emergency room, everything Dane eats must be made from scratch: "I don't eat in restaurants or from vending machines," he says, "[and] I try not to be around a lot of food, which makes it a little isolating because so much of our culture and socialization revolves around food."

But there are many allergy sufferers who practice the same devout food avoidance Dane does -- and don't actually have to, according to a paper published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

While a considerable percentage of Americans report that they have a food allergy, the true incidence of food allergies may be far less, says Dr. Marc Riedl, an author of the paper and an allergist and immunologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"If you look at the numbers, roughly half of the people who believe they have an allergy, do not," Riedl says.

Some of these misled patients are self-diagnosed, misinterpreting heartburn or food intolerance with a true allergy, he says. Others have seen doctors who have misinterpreted allergy test results and hence have been told to avoid foods that they don't actually have to.

Dane says he sees this in some of the families in his allergy support group.

"Some have mistakenly been told that a positive skin test means that their child is allergic," he says. "This is not the case."

This is one of the biggest take-home messages of Wednesday's paper, says Dr. Hugh Sampson, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine: one positive allergy test result does not a food allergy make.