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How the Media Portrays Food Allergies

Written by Teen Advisory Group (TAG)

Imagine a little kid, around 8 years old, relaxing and watching Nickelodeon. The kid is engrossed in the show and gets excited when the main character finally kisses her crush. The show continues, fun and kid-friendly, until only a couple minutes after the kiss, when a terrifying joke is made. The crush suddenly calls from the hospital, face all red and puffy, asking the main character if she ate peanuts before kissing him. She sheepishly replies that she had a peanut butter cookie before the kiss. The crush was allergic to peanuts. The little kid, who also has a peanut allergy, stares in horror. This boy was like her, but instead of educating the viewers on the seriousness of food allergies, they exploited it for humor. For this little girl, it was not funny at all. To this day, she can still recall that exact day, and those exact scenes. 

The media we watch shapes our perspective of the world, in ways both subtle and not. For that reason, the treatment of food allergies in the media is of particular concern. When the media portrays food allergies as comedic, that leads to the audience developing a belief that food allergies are not a serious issue. When the media portrays food allergies in a negative light, that can lead to audiences developing a negative view of real-life individuals with food allergies. A 2015 study proved this phenomenon. Two groups of participants were shown two different sets of clips; one set contained negative or comedic depictions of food allergies in movies and tv shows, the other set showed serious and positive portrayals of food allergies.

The study concluded that, “participants exposed to more humorous portrayals of food allergies were expected to have more negative attitudes towards those with food allergies, perceptions of food allergies in general, and be less likely to take lifesaving measures in an emergency” (Opper).

Not only does the media shape the behavior and attitudes of its audience when it comes to food allergies, it also informs the population. A study found that 49.6% of the general population believes that television is the best way to learn about food allergies (Gupta). The misinformation could range from inaccuracies about the symptoms of food allergies to inaccurate portrayal of anaphylaxis treatment. With so many people relying on the media for their food allergy education, inaccuracies and harmful portrayal of food allergies in the media become even more troubling. 

Additionally when an audience sees a character with food allergies as weak or embarrassing, this perception of people with food allergies will often translate into their treatment in real life. Kids with food allergies are already disproportionately bullied more than their peers.

“According to a recent survey published in the October issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, about 25% of children are bullied, teased, or harassed because of a food allergy.” (acaai.org).

Television is often a reflection of real life. TV writers will make jokes and have plotlines that center around things people find funny or entertaining. The fact that the teasing and harassment of people with food allergies is so mainstream in entertainment further reflects the relevance of this issue. It is also a two-way mirror. When entertainment portrays a kid with food allergies as annoying or weak or a villain (all common tropes shown in television and movies for characters with allergies), then whenever they think about someone with food allergies, they will associate that person with these characteristics. This can lead to bullying or teasing or not reacting properly when someone has an anaphylactic attack which could result in death. Allergies are no joke, so they shouldn’t be treated as such. 

More About Food Allergies in the Media

Sources

Ciuppa, Nicole. “Film Industry failed the Food Allergy Community?” May-Contain, https://www.may-contain.com/new-blog/2018/2/19/have-you-eaten-nuts-1-ke4ze-5l58c-ct4f4-zythy

Gupta, R., Kim, J., Springston, E., Smith, B., Pongracic, J., Wang, X., & Holl, J. (2009). Food allergy knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs in the United States. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 43-50.

Opper, C. E. (2015). Food Allergy Framing in Entertainment Media: The Use of Humor and Its Influence on Health Thoughts and Behavior [Senior Honors Thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill]. Carolina Digital Repository. http://hussman.unc.edu/sites/default/files/SeniorHonorsThesis_Spring2015_COpper.pdf

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