Food Allergy Myths and Misconceptions
FARE is dedicated to speaking up for the 15 million Americans with food allergies, including all those at risk for life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Whether you live with food allergies or care for someone who does, brushing up on the facts is a great place to start. You can show your support for the food allergy community by helping to dispel these popular myths and misconceptions.
Myth: Food allergies aren’t serious.
Fact: This is more than just an itch or a stomachache. Food allergies can cause symptoms from hives and a stuffy nose, to vomiting, difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness. If an allergic reaction is severe or involves several parts of the body, it becomes anaphylaxis and can be life-threatening.
Food allergies are not only potentially life-threatening, they’re life-altering. People with food allergies must always be vigilant to ensure they avoid reactions.
Food allergies—and the people who live with them—should always be taken seriously.
Myth: Eating a little bit won’t hurt.
Fact: For someone with a food allergy, even a trace of a food allergen can trigger a severe reaction. You must remove the allergen completely from your diet to stay safe and live well.
Avoiding cross-contact between a safe food and your food allergen is just as important as avoiding the allergen itself. Cross-contact occurs when an allergen is accidentally transferred from one food to another. The food that was safe before is now dangerous for people with that food allergy.
Myth: Each allergic reaction will get worse and worse.
Fact: Food allergy reactions are unpredictable. The way your body reacts to a food allergen one time cannot predict how it will react the next time. You don’t know if a reaction is going to be mild, moderate or severe. You should always be prepared with emergency medication, just in case.
Myth: A food allergy that has only caused mild reactions is a mild food allergy.
Fact: There are no mild or severe food allergies—only mild to severe reactions. What caused a mild reaction in the past may lead to a severe reaction in the future, and vice versa. Never let your guard down. Always take precautions to prevent allergic reactions before they happen.
From the moment you know or suspect you or a loved one has ingested an allergen, take action. Even mild symptoms can quickly progress to a severe reaction, or anaphylaxis. You should be watchful and prepared to give medication—seconds count!
It is important for every person with life-threatening food allergies to have an individualized food allergy action plan. This document explains the symptoms of an allergic reaction and what medication(s) you should take for each symptom(s).
Myth: Food allergies are the same as food intolerances.
Fact: Unlike food intolerances, food allergies are “IgE mediated.” This means that your immune system produces an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE for short) when it detects a food allergen. IgE antibodies fight the “enemy” food by releasing histamine and other chemicals. These chemicals then trigger the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Food intolerances do not involve the immune system. And while they can cause great discomfort, they are not life-threatening. A food allergy, on the other hand, can be fatal. Learn more about food intolerances.
Myth: Peanut is the most common food allergy in kids.
All food allergies, no matter how common or rare, are serious.
Myth: Peanut is the most “dangerous” food allergy.
Fact: No single food allergy poses a greater threat than another. While only eight foods (milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish) account for the vast majority of all food allergies, virtually any food can cause an allergic reaction. And even a very small amount of the problem food is enough to cause a reaction.
Myth: All allergy-inducing ingredients must be listed on food labels.
According to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), the eight most common allergens must be labeled on packaged foods sold in the U.S. These allergens are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.
This federal law, which took effect January 1, 2006, states that these ingredients must be listed if they are present in any amount. They should be featured clearly and in plain language, even if they appear in colors, flavors or spice blends. FARE supports adding sesame to this list of major allergens, as prevalence and awareness of sesame allergy is growing.
However, people can be allergic to foods other than the eight most common. These allergens can appear in surprising places, and they may not be listed on food labels.
Always read food packaging labels and ask questions about ingredients before eating a food that you have not prepared yourself. Pay attention to the “may contain” warnings on food labels as well. This is especially important if you have a history of severe reactions.
Misconception: If a food doesn’t traditionally contain an allergen or you don’t see the allergen listed in a dish’s menu description, that food is safe to eat.
Fact: Allergens can appear in unexpected places. For example, fish or shellfish are sometimes dipped in milk to reduce their fishy odor, posing a problem for people with milk allergy.
Never assume anything about how a food has been made or served. Always read food labels and ask questions about ingredients before eating a food that you have not prepared yourself.
Misconception: I have a food allergy because my skin or blood tests were positive.
Fact: Positive skin prick and blood tests are not always accurate. About 50 to 60 percent of these tests can give “false positive” results. This means that the test is positive even though you are not allergic to the food being tested.
It is important to discuss test results with your primary care doctor or an allergist. He or she will interpret them based on your history. If it is unclear whether you have a food allergy, an oral food challenge can help. For this procedure, a healthcare professional will closely supervise as you consume the food in question.
Myth: A food allergy always develops in childhood. Then you’re stuck with it for life.
Fact: You can develop a food allergy at any age, even to a food that you’ve safely eaten before.
Children especially may outgrow a food allergy over time. This is common with allergies to milk, egg, soy and wheat. Allergies that are harder to outgrow include peanut, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
What to Read Next
Important facts and statistics can help you better understand food allergies and anaphylaxis.