A study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) discusses confusion surrounding the diagnosis and maintenance of food allergies.  The release of this study coincides with Food Allergy Awareness Week.  

Food Allergy Awareness Week is a national awareness campaign that was started by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network in 1998 and is aimed at educating the public about food allergies and anaphylaxis.

peanut-allergy-featured.jpgThe National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s National Institutes of Health, has suggested that food allergy be defined as an “adverse immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food and is distinct from other adverse responses to food, such as food intolerance, pharmacologic reactions, and toxin-mediated reactions.”  This study found that this definition has not been universally adopted.

This study says that food allergies affect “more than 1 percent to 2 percent but less than 10 percent of the population.” The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network estimates that approximately 12 million people in the U.S. suffer from a food allergy. 

Research shows that it is unclear whether there has been a true increase in food allergies; 3.3 percent of US children had food allergies in 1997 as opposed to 3.9 percent in 2007–a statistically significant difference.  The study’s authors believe the reason for this increase could be due to the increased awareness and reporting rather than a true increase.

Neither type of test used in diagnosing food allergies–the common skin prick test or blood test–is a fool-proof method. According to the authors, “there are no well-accepted criteria for diagnosing food allergies.”

Researchers identified 25 studies of 7 food allergy management strategies including elimination diets, immunotherapy, food substitutions or alterations, diets in breastfeeding women, medical or pharmacological therapies, probiotics, and education.

The study done on elimination diets reported improvement in atopic dermatitis in patients on elimination diets compared with those who were not on elimination diets.

In immunotherapy, the immune response to allergen exposure is altered using protocols designed to administer increasing doses of the causative allergen over time.  According to this study, immunotherapy was somewhat effective for desensitization but tolerance and safety weren’t adequately evaluated.

Advocacy on behalf of the millions of individuals with food allergies is an important part of The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network’s (FAAN’s) mission. “We are hopeful that Congress will pass The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act in 2010. This crucial legislation would result in the creation of voluntary, national guidelines to help schools safely and effectively manage the growing number of students with a food allergy. Currently, the bill is co-sponsored by more than one-third of the U.S. Senate and nearly 100 members of the U.S. House of Representatives,” said Julia Bradsher, PhD, MBA, and CEO of FAAN.

Correction:  This article originally stated that food allergies affect approximately 12 million people worldwide.  The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network estimates that 12 million Americans suffer from a food allergy.