Let’s Stop Mocking Food Allergies

in Gwen Smith: From the Editor's Desk
Published: July 2, 2010

It has become fashionable as of late to mock food allergies as a “trendy” condition, a construct of over-protective parents or attention-seeking adults. I simply can’t think of any other serious, sometimes life-threatening condition that is dissed more often.

Take last month, for instance. There we were smack in the middle of Food Allergy Awareness month: the Food Allergy Initiative in New York had organized a huge fundraising drive and pledges were pouring in for five runs across Canada, all in support of research.

Then, on May 12, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review of several food allergy studies and concluded that the lack of a common definition of this disease and inconsistent test methods make diagnosis and management of food allergies difficult.

Hardly earth-shattering news to most people. But here’s where the dismissiveness begins: A senior science reporter for The New York Times decided to write an article on the JAMA review, taking as her angle a new “fact” – that 30 per cent of the population “believe” they have food allergies, while “only” 5 per cent of adults and “only” 8 per cent of kids actually do.

At Allergic Living magazine, we were skeptical of that 30 per cent statistic. Think about it: That would mean about 93 million Americans (or three times the population of Canada) are claiming to have largely imaginary allergies. Sure, some people confuse intolerance to certain foods or heartburn with a true food allergy. But 90 million?

Such is the clout of The New York Times, however, that within the weeks that followed everyone in the media, from the CBC to the American networks, the Discovery Channel and an English website out of Beijing, was repeating that 30 per cent of Americans “think” they have food allergies – and that JAMA had said so.

You could practically hear the tsk-tsking about “picky eaters.” But if you, like me, have a couple of actual, diagnosed, serious food allergies, what can you do to counter such coverage? Do we have to get T-shirts that say: “I am allergic. Really“? Such is life with the disease that gets no respect.

Junk figure

The 30 per cent figure, however, turns out to be junk. It does not appear in the JAMA review of studies and now, a couple of weeks later, nobody seems to want ownership of it. Here at Allergic Living, our senior editor e-mailed Dr. Marc Riedl of UCLA, one of the lead authors of the JAMA paper.

Had he given such a statistic to New York Times‘ reporter Gina Kolata during their interview? He wrote back and said that The Times was “sloppy with the details” of the figures, especially the 30 per cent “believing” they have allergies.

Reidl acknowledges that some countries seem to have high “belief levels.” But, at the worst, he said, “most data suggest that self-reported food allergy is in the 10 to 17 per cent range for the U.S.” But even that information wasn’t in the actual JAMA study, which everyone was citing.

So I wrote to Gina Kolata and asked where she got the 30 per cent figure. Dr. Reidl, she replied. He said, she said. Only her tape recorder knows for sure.

But this isn’t an academic question about journalistic accuracy. The issue I have with articles like Kolata’s, as well as that infamous Harvard professor’s column from late 2008, which used personal anecdotes to charge that food allergy’s rise was “hysteria,” is the damage they do to food allergy as a legitimate disease.

It is clearly a condition that needs to be taken seriously in schools, workplaces and restaurants because of the potential for severe reactions, including death. It is also something that desperately needs more research funding.

As I write this, there is extraordinary, innovative work underway that could lead to the first-ever treatments for food allergies – from desensitization to Chinese herbal tablets to a vaccine containing “altered” peanut. But this research takes money, lots of it, since the immune system is a complex and less than predictable beast.

Mangled facts do not help when it comes to raising funds, and they certainly do nothing to help the general public’s comprehension of a disease that is a growing, modern phenomenon.

The Bigger Story

Unfortunately, The New York Times and its media followers missed the real news on the rates of food allergy.

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the allergists’ bible, has just published two long-awaited prevalence studies in its June issue. The one on U.S. rates for peanut and tree nut allergies, emanating from the highly respected Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, finds that peanut and nut allergies have more than tripled in children between 1997 and 2008. That’s right, tripled.

The second article contained the results of what’s called the SCAAALAR survey, Canada’s first official tally of allergies to peanuts, nuts, sea foods and sesame. In this country, the rates for peanut and tree nut allergies were comparable to the U.S., even slightly higher in kids.

Dr. Ann Clarke, a professor at McGill University and one of SCAAALAR’s lead investigators, recently observed that between 6 and 8 per cent of Canadians have a real food allergy. Even at the low end, that’s about two million Canadians. The higher figure translates to just over one in every 12 people.

Sorry, NYT, but there’s no “only” to qualify a rate like that. Let’s make that, wow, as much as 8 per cent of the Canadian population has a food allergy, a disease that can threaten your life.

Now that cries out for respect. Not to mention some answers as to why we have so much food allergy today, especially in children. There are plenty of theories, but nothing definitive to solve the puzzle. It’s time we stopped pestering the scientists with skepticism, and let them get on with the answers and the treatments.

Originally published by CBC.ca here.
Forum discussion here.