A report published Wednesday by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says it’s hard to know how many people in the U.S. have actual food allergies, or whether they’ve been on the rise in recent years.

Part of the problem is that there’s still no clear-cut definition as to what constitutes a food allergy, and there’s no litmus test to determine whether someone is truly allergic. Many food allergy cases are self-diagnosed and symptoms can be misinterpreted for other conditions, such as lactose intolerance or gluten sensitivity, according to the researchers.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what a food allergy is,” says Dr. Virginia Stallings, a nutrition pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “The reason food allergy symptoms are often confused with other [conditions] such as lactose intolerance is because there’s an overlap in some of the symptoms.”

According to the report, vague warnings such as “made in the same factory as peanuts” and ”may contain traces of tree nuts” may be confusing to people with food allergies and need to be more specific.

Today’s labels regarding accidental contamination are voluntary and not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which means there’s no way to know if foods that don’t carry the warnings should, or if verbiage such as “may contain traces” is strong enough to inform consumers of the potential risks.

Among the panel’s recommendations:

  • Government officials should come up with a realistic assessment as to how many people have actual food allergies;
  • Informing new parents about allergy prevention. Studies have shown that introducing potential allergy-triggering foods such as peanut butter before age 1 can do more to protect at-risk children than the conventional wisdom of waiting to try suspect foods until children are older;
  • Better education for consumers and healthcare professionals about the differences between true food allergies and other conditions that are commonly misdiagnosed as such, and
  • Increased awareness about helping people avoid foods they’re allergic to, and how to treat severe allergic reactions.

The report concluded that FDA should replace the “precautionary” label approach with a risk-based warning. The idea is to determine a safety level for specific allergens — just how much of a “trace” of peanuts, eggs or milk could most people with allergies tolerate? The updated labeling would give consumers more information in deciding whether or not to take a chance on a questionable food.

Source: NBC News

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