Having a food allergy is scary, but being misinformed about the facts of food allergies can lead to unnecessary anxiety and hyped fear. Like many other health issues, lines about the truths and facts of food allergies have been blurred by the media and so-called "experts." As May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, here is a closer look at the misinformation swirling around food allergies.
Myth No. 1: Food allergy and food intolerance are the same thing.
Fact: Although many people think they're the same, food allergy and food intolerance describe different conditions. A food allergy is when the body's immune system is triggered. It can lead to mild symptoms like hives, vomiting, diarrhea, sneezing and a running nose to more severe symptoms like swelling of the lips, trouble swallowing, chest pain and loss of consciousness. These symptoms usually come on quickly after someone eats a specific food. The eight most common food allergies are milk, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts and cashews), eggs, soy, fish, and shellfish. On the other hand, food intolerance is triggered by the digestive system. Typical symptoms include nausea, bloating, flatulence and diarrhea. The symptoms tend to come on gradually and occur when you eat over a tolerable limit of a food. Common food intolerances include dairy and wheat.
Myth No. 2: Once a child is diagnosed with a food allergy, it can never be outgrown.
Fact: Studies have shown that children can outgrow food allergies. According to Food Allergy Research and Education, up to 20 percent of peanut allergies and 9 percent of tree nut allergies are outgrown. Further, wheat allergy is most common in children and is usually outgrown by the age of 3 years. Research also shows that a majority of kids with soy allergy outgrow the allergy by the age of 10 years. This is why it is important for a child with a food allergy to get regularly tested.
[Read: Food Intolerance: Fact and Fiction.]
Myth No. 3: If you think you are allergic to a food, you should stop eating it immediately.
Fact: Cutting out a suspect food from your diet without getting properly tested for a food allergy is not advisable. Self-diagnosis can lead to unnecessary food restrictions and lead to an unbalanced diet and nutritional inadequacies, especially in children who need proper nutrition for proper growth and development. Further, some people may think they have a food allergy when they actually have another type of food disorder, and the treatment may be different. A qualified medical professional, like a board-certified allergist, can properly diagnose a food allergy. Common diagnostic tests for food allergies include a skin prick test, blood test, oral food challenge and trial elimination diet. Having a combination of tests conducted can give you the best picture of what is really going on.
[Read: Strange (but True) Food Allergies.]
Myth No. 4: If you have a peanut allergy, smelling peanuts can cause an anaphylactic reaction.
Fact: In order for someone with a peanut allergy to have a severe allergic reaction (like anaphylaxis), the protein must be ingested. According to a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, airborne exposure -- the odor -- doesn't cause an anaphylactic reaction. The aroma (or smell) of peanuts comes from a compound in the peanuts that does not cause an allergic reaction. If, however, you inhale peanut particles, which is different from the peanut odor, that can lead to an allergic reaction.
Myth No. 5: Rinsing hands or tabletops with plain water is an effective way to remove food allergens.
Fact: Rinsing hands with plain water or with antibacterial hand sanitizer is not an effective way to remove food allergens. The same is true with kitchen utensils and equipment. In order to effectively remove food allergens from your hands use liquid soap, bar soap or commercial wipes. In order to remove the food allergen from tabletops, use your common household cleaning agents.
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of the forthcoming cookbook "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen" (Grand Central Publishing 2014). She consults and blogs for various organizations, including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.