Think you have a food allergy? You’re probably fooling yourself

Gluten-free bread.
Gluten-free bread.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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More than a fifth of American adults believe they have a food allergy, but in reality it’s very possible they are just imagining it.

That’s according to new research published yesterday (Jan. 5) in the online journal JAMA Network Open. About 10% of Americans living with food allergies have actually been officially diagnosed with the condition by a physician, the study found.

As it turns out, very little is actually known about the prevalence and severity of food allergies among American adults. Population-sized studies have been conducted to learn more about food allergies in children, but among adults they are scarce. This is one of the only comprehensive population studies to date of food allergies in the US.

Even still, entire miniature industries have cropped up and thrived as people have sought products that are dairy-free, gluten-free, peanut-free, among many others. Sales of gluten-free products in the US in 2010 hovered around $2.6 billion, according to a CNBC report. Six years later, in 2016, California-based Grand View Research valued the global gluten-free product market at nearly $15 billion, with the US accounting for about half of that.

The perceived prevalence of food allergies—enough to fuel multi-billion dollar industries—has been a point of curiosity for researchers. So scientists at both Stanford University and Northwestern University teamed up to conduct a telephone and internet survey study of more than 40,400 American adults. The survey was important in that previous studies into adults with food allergies focused mainly specific foods, like peanuts and shellfish. This new research project was an attempt to get a more comprehensive picture.

What the researchers found is telling. More people think they are living with food allergies when they actually aren’t. According to the study, 10% of Americans suffer from a diagnosed allergy, while 20% think they have one.

The researchers say there is still a lot to learn about food allergies, in general. That includes at which age they are most likely to begin, the severity of most allergies, and whether any sociodemographic elements are at play.