A new report from the National Academy of Sciences says it’s hard to know how many people in the U.S. actually have food allergies or whether they’re on the rise.
Part of the challenge is this: Food allergies are often self-diagnosed and symptoms can be misinterpreted. Sometimes people can’t distinguish a food allergy from other conditions such as lactose intolerance or gluten sensitivity, which don’t fit the medical definition of an allergy.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about what a food allergy is,” says Dr. Virginia Stallings, a board-certified nutrition pediatrician at the The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the chair of the committee that wrote the new report.
One scenario is this: A parent of a young child introduces a new food — say, milk — into the diet, and then notices the child has an upset stomach or other symptoms of gastrointestinal distress.
The parent may suspect a food allergy. But, perhaps, these are signs of lactose intolerance — a completely different condition.
“The reason food allergy symptoms are often confused with other [conditions] such as lactose intolerance is because there’s an overlap in some of the symptoms,” Stallings explains.
An allergy is an immune response to a food or other substance that is normally harmless. Common symptoms include hives and swelling or GI distress. Food allergies can be life threatening. Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, means a person can’t easily digest the natural sugar found in milk. And, as the American Academy of Pediatrics points out in this FAQ on the topic, “while lactose intolerance can cause a great deal of discomfort, it will not produce a life-threatening reaction such as anaphylaxis.”