Food allergies less common than thought

The alarm over food allergies has changed day care and schools enormously. “No peanut zones” are commonplace in the lunchroom, while snack ingredient lists are subject to scrutiny by wary parents and teachers.

Yet, the number of children with food allergies may not be as large as we think.

According to a federally commissioned study published in the May 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the true incidence of food allergies is only about eight percent in children. It’s even less in adults — less than five percent. Yet, about 30 percent of people believe they have food allergies.

Researchers from VA Palo Alto Healthcare System and Stanford University pored over more than 12,000 allergy research studies, published between January 1988 and September 2009. Surprisingly, they concluded that only 72 studies were properly conducted to yield accurate conclusions.

Other findings in the study:

• Despite popular belief, breast-fed infants do not suffer fewer allergies.

• Using probiotics along with breast milk, hypoallergenic formula, or both, may help prevent food allergies. But their effects on their own are not clear.

• Withholding eggs during the first year of life is not necessary.

• Food challenges, skin prick testing and blood tests for IgE antibodies all have a role to play in making a diagnosis. But no one test is sensitive or specific enough to be recommended over the other tests.

• While elimination diets are the mainstay of treatment, researchers could only find one randomized controlled trial — one of the most reliable study types — of an elimination diet. Part of the problem is that a randomized, controlled trial for serious life-threatening food allergy reactions is not only unnecessary, but unethical.

• It’s not clear whether or not food allergies are increasing.

Why is there so much confusion?

Food allergy and food intolerance often get mixed up. Only allergies involve the immune system. Food intolerance is more common than food allergy and occurs when the digestive tract cannot properly break down food. For example, the inability to digest the milk sugar, lactose, is an intolerance.

The most common food allergies are to proteins in cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish and tree nuts. Peanuts and tree nuts are the leading cause of severe food allergic reactions. Luckily, many children outgrow allergies to milk and eggs. But severe allergies to foods like peanuts, some fish, and shrimp can last all their lives.

Please note that I am not stating that parents are making up the symptoms and severity of their children’s food allergies. I am simply reporting on a surprising peer-reviewed study published in a respected medical journal.

Raising a child with food allergies adds even more expense and effort to your role as parents. Very soon, an expert panel of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will provide guidelines defining food allergies and giving criteria for diagnosis and management.

Hopefully, this will make your life just a little easier.

The information provided in this article is not intended to substitute for the advice of a medical doctor.

Q: Just how many kids are affected by peanut allergies?

A: The percentage of children with peanuts allergies more than tripled — from 0.4 percent to 1.4 percent — since 1997, according to a new survey of 5,300 households published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Helpful websites

Kids with Food Allergies:

Food Allergy Initiative:

Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network:

Christine M. Palumbo is a registered dietitian in suburban Chicago. She is a mother of three, only one of whom suffers from food allergies. Send your questions and column ideas to her at or call (630) 369-8495.

Watermelon-Blueberry Ice Pops

Makes about 10 three ounce pops.


3 ¾ cups chopped seedless watermelon

2 tablespoons lime juice

1-2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup fresh blueberries

INSTRUCTIONS: Puree watermelon, lime juice and sugar in a food processor or blender until smooth. Divide blueberries among small paper cups or freezer-pop molds. Top with the watermelon mixture. Insert sticks and freeze until completely firm, about 6 hours. Dip the molds briefly in hot water before unmolding.

NUTRITION FACTS: 30 calories, 0 grams fat and cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams protein, 1 gram fiber, 1 milligram sodium

Recipe from