Review: food allergies inconsistently diagnosed, poorly researched

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Fewer than 10% of Americans have food allergies, yet sloppy studies, wrong diagnoses and inaccurate testing have been leading a far larger portion of the population to believe they too are allergic to certain foods, according to a new review of allergy studies published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. As the New York Times reports, an estimated 30% of Americans believe that they have food allergies, but in truth roughly 8% of children and 5% of adults are actually allergic to certain foods, according to estimates from Dr. Marc Riedl, an author of the new research who specializes in allergies and immunology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The review, funded by the National Institutes of Health and commissioned by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggests that inconsistent testing methods and confusion about the distinction between intolerance to certain foods and actual allergies has contributed to the inflated numbers of people who believe they suffer from food allergies. What’s more, reviewers found that even widely held beliefs about food allergies — that babies shouldn’t be fed certain foods such as eggs during the first year of life, or that babies who are breast-fed are less likely to develop food allergies later in life — aren’t based in any rigorous scientific evidence, the Times reports.

The team of 11 researchers, led by Dr. Jennifer Schneider Chafen of the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research at Stanford University School of Medicine, initially compiled more than 12,000 food allergy studies for the review. After paring down by quality of study methodology and specific food allergies included in the research, the authors included 72 studies in the analysis.

Read the full New York Times piece here. And the JAMA study abstract here.