Is your child’s food allergy a myth?

Confusion about food allergies and unreliable home tests are putting some children at risk

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Is your child allergic to wheat or dairy? Are you sure? Because false allergy tests mean thousands of children are on pointlessly limited diets, a group of experts and charities claim.

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Allergies and food intolerances are seemingly on the rise in the UK but there’s confusion between the two and misdiagnoses are commonplace, say Sense About Science, which has released a guide with the help of allergy specialists and charities.

The report claimed that taking certain food types out of children’s diets unnecessarily has led to cases of malnutrition. It also referred to a study from the Isle of Wight that looked at 969 children and found 34% of their parents reported food allergies but only 5% were actually found to have an allergy

“It’s probably the biggest mess for science communication, where myths, misinterpreted studies and quackery collide with under- and over-diagnosis,” said Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science. “The costs are huge – unnecessary actions for some and not enough action for those whose lives depend on it.”

Thanks to this confusion, many people claim to have allergies when in fact they have a food intolerance. While allergies can be serious, and sometimes life-threatening, intolerances can make the sufferer feel unwell, but aren’t life threatening.

This has an unexpected effect – of putting those with real allergies at risk. 

Experts fear that restaurants and caterers are becoming sceptical of the increasing number of customers claiming to have food allergies. Therefore, they may not take all the precautions they should when serving a person with a genuine allergy.

“It matters very much,” said Moira Austin of the Anaphylaxis Campaign. “If a caterer thinks somebody is just avoiding a food because they don’t want to get bloated, they may be less careful. There have been a number of fatalities where people have gone to a restaurant and alerted staff that they have an allergy to a particular food and the meal has been served up containing that allergen.”

Home allergy tests are unreliable

What’s more, most internet and shop-bought allergy tests, including the popular York test, have no scientific basis, the guide says.

“I commonly see children who’ve been put on to unnecessarily restricted diets because their parents assume, in good faith, that they have allergies to multiple foods on the basis of ‘allergy tests’ which have no scientific basis,” said Paul Seddon, a consultant paediatric allergist, on behalf of the UK Cochrane Centre, the independent organisation which assess medical evidence. “This needs to stop, which can only happen if we debunk these ‘tests’.”

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