Food Allergies Are Less Common than You Think, Study Finds

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

Food allergies can be tough to live with: People who suffer from them have to monitor their dietary intake and be ready to take action when something slips through. But a new study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, by investigators at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), has found that food allergies aren’t as common as you might think.

“Recent reports suggest that food allergies are on the rise, with more food-allergy-related hospitalizations in the U.S. over the last decade. However, many studies have been based on telephone surveys or have focused on a specific food allergen or allergen group,” Li Zhou, MD, PhD, of the Division of General Medicine Primary Care at BWH says in a statement. “We recognized that the electronic health record system could offer a treasure trove of information about allergies to better understand which populations may be most affected and just how common food allergies and intolerances are in the U.S.”

After going through more than 2.7 million medical records from patients in the Boston area between 2000 and 2013, the team of researchers found that 3.6 percent of the population studied have a documented food allergy. When you break it down by gender and race, the rates vary.

(Image credit: Susmita Baral)

For instance, 4.2 percent of females suffer from a food allergy, whereas only 2.6 percent of men do, and young children had higher rates than adults. When it comes to ethnic background, Asians have a higher rate of food intolerance. And, the biggest food allergen is shellfish (like shrimp and lobster) followed by fruits or vegetables, dairy, and peanuts.

(Image credit: Susmita Baral)

According to Zhou, food allergies cost the country around $25 billion a year. Those who suffer from food allergies can get hives, anaphylaxis, shortness of breath, swelling, or itchiness. Of the patients with food allergies, half have documented symptoms like hives, coughing, and vomiting. And 16 percent have experienced more severe reactions like body-wide anaphylactic reactions.

While the percentage of people who suffer from food allergies is low, Zhou’s takeaway is that the country needs more allergists to better test the population and provide proper care.