Nearly 15 million Americans have food allergies, and 1 in 13 of them are children. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the prevalence of food allergy in children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.
As a result, what used to be a rarity is now a common practice – reading labels, packing snacks from home and ordering carefully when dining out. Still, much confusion still exists around food allergies. Here, Rush University Medical Center pediatric gastroenterologist Sheela (Raikar) Mahendra, MD, and Rush Copley Medical Group pediatrician Megan Muscia, DO, FAAP, help debunk a few persisting myths.
Myth: You can outgrow food allergies.
Fact: One of first questions parents ask when their child is diagnosed with a food allergy is, Will they outgrow it? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer or guarantee. Many children will outgrow allergies in time, but not 100 percent of them. Mahendra says that family history is a big factor.
“If you have family members who have or are prone to allergies like food allergies, asthma, eczema or seasonal allergies, there might be a genetic predisposition which can cause more chronic food allergies or even Eosinophilic (ee-uh-sin-uh-fil-ik) esophagitis (EoE),” says Mahendra.
EoE is a chronic immune condition that causes inflammation of the esophagus. Individuals with EoE commonly have other allergic diseases such as rhinitis, asthma, and/or eczema, and certain families may have an inherited tendency to develop it.
Myth: Eating a little bit won’t hurt
Fact: For someone with a food allergy, even a small trace of a food allergen can trigger a reaction. Cross contamination with a food allergen is just as important to avoid as the allergen itself.
Since allergens can be hidden and inadvertently transferred from one food to another, pediatrician Muscia advises parents to raise concerns and ask questions.
“There are hidden allergens in many processed and restaurant foods,” she says. “I tell patients to create awareness of their child’s allergies when you are eating away from home. Many restaurants can accommodate allergies.”
Muscia not only advises patients on food allergies, she puts it into practice in her own home. The pediatrician’s daughter suffers from peanut and tree nuts allergies. For families who have members with food allergies and have concern about cross- contamination she offers some advice – plan ahead.
“If you have a birthday party or event, have a back-up plan for food or snacks so your family member doesn’t feel left out,” says Muscia.
Myth: Food allergies and food intolerances are the same.
Fact: Plain and simple - there is a difference. Only food allergy testing can determine if an allergy truly exists. If allergy testing is normal and certain foods cause allergy-like symptoms, the problem is most likely food intolerance.
Food allergies – which are the immune system’s reaction to food as if it were a harmful substance – cause inflammation in the body, which can lead to more concerning health issues in the esophagus later in life. Unlike food allergies, food intolerances don’t involve the immune system. While the symptoms of food intolerance can cause discomfort, they do not cause inflammation and are not life-threatening.
Both Muscia and Mahendra advise speaking to a provider about allergy testing to determine if an allergy is present.
Myth: Gluten-free diets are healthy.
Fact: If you are eating a gluten-free diet because you think it’s healthier, this may not be the case. Mahendra says it’s how you do a gluten-free diet that matters.
“If you are someone that is only eating gluten-free products like bread and pasta and not eating lots of fruits and vegetables, it is not a healthy diet, even if it is gluten free.” says Mahendra. “Gluten-free products are higher in calories and carbohydrates and not always a healthy alternative. You have to eat in balance with other healthy foods.”