Oh dear, here we go again… The old chestnut. ‘Over 40% of the population believe they have food allergies but in fact less than 5% do so the other 35% are unnecessarily restricting their diets and may be making themselves ill by not eating sufficient nutrients. This is especially dangerous where children are concerned’…. The return to school has spawned another round of press releases and articles rehearsing the same story which we have heard again and again.
As with the milk saga about which I was inveighing in my last post – it is all down to semantics. What a health professional understands by an ‘allergy’ is an immune system reaction to a food (or inhaled or contact allergen) – a reaction which can be extremely serious, even fatal, and that requires total avoidance of the allergen but which is a relatively rare condition. Despite the growth in peanut allergy over the last ten years, it is still unlikely that much more than 5% of the population suffer from this condition.
What very many more people suffer from is a temporary or longer term ‘food intolerance’ when a specific food or group of foods disagrees with them and makes them feel ill. This may be an ideopathic condition (no one knows what it causing it), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (more or less the same thing…), coeliac disease (an autoimmune condition in which you react to gluten), the after effects of a bout of gastroenteritis or any one of a thousand other conditions which affect the digestion – but it is not a ‘classic’, immune-mediated allergy.
The problem is that the man in the street does not understand the medical definition of allergy. As far as he or she is concerned, an ‘allergy’ is (as it was in its original definition) ‘an inappropriate response to a substance – ingested (such as a food), inhaled (such as pollen) or touched (such as latex) – which does not cause a reaction in the rest of the population’. So, he or she thinks and talks about his or her ‘intolerance’ as an ‘allergy’, thus getting up the nose of the medical profession who test them for an immune-system related allergy and find that they do not have one, so send them away no better than they arrived.
The need here is for better understanding by the medical profession of food intolerance, and of the confusion in the minds of those who suffer from it. But that is a big ask, not only because food intolerance is not currently acknowledged or covered in medical school but because it is an enormous and enormously complex subject of which very few practitioners understand the ramifications.
For more on the subject with specific reference to wheat allergy see my article on the Foods Matter site sparked by the media frenzy about wheat allergy about 18 months ago.