What's "squishy" about this? Debunking the debunking of Food Allergies


It’s been a tough month for those seeking greater positive awareness for food allergies. After a lot of hope for “Food Allergy Awareness Week”, our special time turned into a battle ground, where the food allergy community felt mightily attacked by such big players as The New York Times, ABC, and NBC. All this chaos stemmed from a strategically released report by JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) about the inaccuracy of food allergy testing and reporting, right smack dab in the middle of “Food Allergy Awareness Week”. It kind of seemed like mainstream media was calling us all a bunch of hysterical hypochondriacs. I’ll be the first to admit, it bugs me that the confusion between food allergies and food intolerances persists.  And the methods for testing are inconsistent and confusing. But are we really making it up that the food we eat is making us sick? Really now, how many of us take a well child to the doctor suspecting a food allergy? We aren’t making up this expensive, life-altering, restrictive, scary diagnosis. My kid was almost dying before I landed at the Allergist. So now, as a food allergic person, with food allergic children, who spends her life working as an advocate for those with food allergies, I could not, would not just sit by and listen to these reports without doing a little research myself. Here’s the first thing I have to say: There is a lot of spin going on. I’ll start with this new blog on the New York Times called “The Squishy Science of Food Allergies”. I’m sorry, have you read it? Where’s the squish? Every single one of the experts they profile says the same thing… that Food Allergies are on the rise.  What they really mean, by “squishy”, is that Food Allergy TESTING is suspect, yet despite this, all agree that the number of people with food allergies, in fact all allergies, is climbing.

Why aren’t we talking about that?  This JAMA report is important and necessary, we need to revamp the system by which we diagnose, but it seems to me that by focussing so much attention on this, we are diverting attention away from the true burning issue at hand: Why has there been a sudden, rapid, dramatic, horrrondous increase in the numbers of people who are allergic to the primary staple foods in this country, the mainstays of our food industry… eggs, dairy, wheat, soy, corn….. Our economy is heavily dependent on these industries, and it’s pretty darn scary that so many millions of people can’t eat them.

But back to the debunking.  Okay, I read the New York Times article  “Doubt Is Cast on Many Reports of Food Allergies”, and I thought, “yeah, no duh”.  It’s no secret that there is a tremendous amount of confusion and lack of education about food allergies vs. food intolerances, and people often use the terms interchangeably. But Food Allergy Professionals are not just handing out food allergy diagnosese willy nilly, and I have never ever heard anyone of repute in this community quote that statistic of 30%, that the NY Times says food allergy people are claiming. Where’d they get that number from? Cold calling the general public?  The title of this article undermines our cause, and is potentially quite dangerous. The title fails to say what is truly startling about this study: That the numbers of people thought to have food allergies is actually HIGHER than previously thought, when you break down the data. Additionally, the food allergy community has been clamoring for more research and more accurate modes of testing for years.  We are not a bunch of fruitcakes. Just see this statement made by FAAN (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network) and FAI (Food Allergy Initiative) the day after this article broke:  FAI and FAAN Issue Statement in Response to Articles on Food Allergy Prevalence.

Here’s what really disturbed me about the article in The NY Times: it was dismissive, w/terms like “only” when it should say “a whopping”. As in “a whopping 8 percent of children” have a true incidence of food allergies.  This percentage is a quote from one of the author’s of the JAMA paper. As quoted in this now infamous NY Times article, “While there is no doubt that people can be allergic to certain foods, with reproducible responses ranging from a rash to a severe life-threatening reaction, the true incidence of food allergies is only about 8 percent for children and less than 5 percent for adults, said Dr. Marc Riedl, an author of the new paper and an allergist and immunologist at the University of California, Los Angeles” . These numbers, which they are bandying about with terms like “only” are actually GREATER than previously thought. It has been my understanding, based on reputable and trusted sources such as FAAN that 12 million Americans had food allergies. According to these new statistics, it’s a whole lot more than that. The title of this NY Times article could just have easily been “Doubt is cast on modes of testing: but no doubt about it, Food Allergies on the Rise”. The statistics they give actually support the counter argument: There are more, not less.

How do I figure this? I had a nagging feeling that I ought to be reading between the lines of this NY Times Article, so I got my hands on the JAMA Report. It supported my suspicions.  It’s a thorough and fair report… the problem is not the report, but in the reporting.  This NY Times article very cleverly shifts our focus away from the most startling numbers of all.

8% of children in the US have a true food allergy. Based upon the most recent US Census Bureau report I could find (from 2006) the population of children in the US was 73.7 million (and census reporting is usually low, so I’m going to round that up to 74,000,000 given the four extra years of population growth). To get the number of kids w/food allergies, let’s divide 74,000,000 by 100, then multiply by 8  (thank you, ehow) = 5,920,000 children with food allergies in the US.

Less than 5% of adults in the US have a true food allergy, so to be conservative, let’s say it’s 4.8%.  I went to find the link to the census page with the stats on the US adult population, but it is suddenly no longer available.  It had said 217.8 million, which was a figure from a couple years back, but since my proof is gone,  I have to do a little more math.  Based upon the most recent total US Population Stats from The Census Bureau, of 309,295,020 I can figure it out by subtracting the population of children from that total figure. So 309,295,020 minus 74,000,000 = 235,295, 020.   235,295,020 divided by 100, then multiplied by 4.8 = 11,294,160.96 adults with food allergies in the US.

11,294,160.96 + 5,920,000=17,214,160.96 people in the US with true food allergies.  That’s 5 million more than we thought.  That’s a whopping number if I ever heard one.

16 Responses

  1. Jason White says:

    Great post. I had the same thought as you regarding the 8% statistic. I thought the actual number was lower than that. Then I thought about it; eight out of a hundred is the same as two out of 25. The typical classroom has about 25 kids in it. So the study is saying that 2 kids in every classroom have a food allergy. That seems to be in line with my anecdotal evidence. In any case, that is a pretty significant number.

  2. Cybele, this is a fantastic blog post. Thank you so much for researching it so thoroughly, crunching the numbers, and tying everything together for the food allergy community. I also appreciate all the links you provided.

  3. Sharon Rosen says:


    Thank you so much for including corn as an allergen, so many groups leave us corn-allergic out of the “allergy community” (FAI, FAAN, FDA).

    I’ve been curious over allergy numbers reported, and really have no idea where that comes from. Do you think that census information comes from doctors, or patients? In either case, I would expect that number to be under reported as it is, so I don’t think there would be a need to reduce the estimation any further.

    In honor of Food Allergy Awareness, and an effort to make it safer for those with a corn allergy, I began a petition on Change.org. The petition is addressed to the FDA, and requests that corn be added to FALCPA. If you would be so kind as to take a look, I would appreciate it. http://bit.ly/FDACorn

    If you think the petition is something your readers would be interested in, it would be great if you could help get the word out.

    Sharon / http://www.LiveCornFree.com

  4. caramama says:

    Thank you for writing this. What you said is exactly how I thought the article should have been written and explained. In fact, my first thoughts about that number where like @Jason White’s, “8%? That’s 2 out of 25! That’s a lot!”

    My hope was that the report would spark support of better and more accurate testing, not some backlash against the prevalence of allergies! Having just gone through the testing over the last year, my husband and I are now actually completely convinced that our 3 year old is allergic to peanuts after the skin test she just had. But I’m still nervous about tree nuts, and even though the tests are negative, we are going to be careful. I wish I could trust negative tests, but it’s the false negatives that have me worried–not the false positives!

  5. Janeen says:

    I felt the same way!! When I saw these article come out during FAAW it infuriated me. Why now? And why with the negative slant? I tweeted my feelings and only got back feedback that seemed as though I was overreacting. I wrote a post about it for WEGO Health here: http://community.wegohealth.com/profiles/blogs/allergy-testing-why-is-the?xg_source=activity
    I’m going to link your post to it. Thanks for sharing your opinion.

  6. Keep up the good work, I like your writing.

  7. this post is very usefull thx!

  8. Bruce says:

    I felt the same way!! When I saw these article come out during FAAW it infuriated me. Why now? And why with the negative slant? I tweeted my feelings and only got back feedback that seemed as though I was overreacting. I wrote a post about it for WEGO Health here: http://community.wegohealth.com/profiles/blogs/allergy-testing-why-is-the?xg_source=activity
    I’m going to link your post to it. Thanks for sharing your opinion.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Don’t you just love the New York Times? And what about the NIH study of 14 kids that concluded that gfcf doesn’t work for autism? Really, 14 kids and they excluded the likely responders, those with food allergies or GI problems. It all makes me so mad because I know that allergy tests are inaccurate, but that doesn’t take away the fact that certain foods do in fact harm me and my children.

  10. Hilary Mcrae says:

    You’ve done it again! Great writing!

  11. Steve says:

    this post is very usefull thx!

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