Responses to the New York Times article downplaying the number of people with food allergies

What a nice way to start last week’s Food Allergy Awareness Week!

Generally, I use the AllergyEats Blog solely to talk about food allergy and intolerance issues related to restaurants. However, the issue I bring up today is relevant in that it calls into question the prevalence of food allergies, which can have a direct effect on how seriously your waiter takes you the next time you dine out.

Last Monday, the New York Times (and others) reported on a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) which had as one of its conclusions that the number of people who have food allergies is much less than the population of individuals who believe they do.

The major claim of the Times article is that food allergies affect 5-8% of Americans versus the 30% who believe they are affected. (Note, however, that the study itself never mentioned this 30% claim.)

This point regarding a 5-8% prevalence of food allergies is relatively accurate according to “conventional industry wisdom” (and confirmed by the Food Allergy Initiative and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network in a response statement). However, who has ever claimed that 30% of the population had a food allergy? Who would believe this? I’ve never heard that statistic. And again, the study itself never mentioned it.

However, by using that figure, the Times was able to put a sensationalistic title on the article: “Doubt Is Cast on Many Reports of Food Allergies.” (Compare this with the study’s title, “Diagnosing and Managing Common Food Allergies: A Systematic Review.) This title, not the article, is the problem. It is misleading, deliberately overdramatic, and very concerning. Why concerning? Reading the title alone will further fuel the fire within those who do not want to believe that food allergies are a real and serious issue in our society today.

Don’t believe me? Read the 242 responses posted on the New York Times website (actually, I saved you the trouble). They range from the “I told you so” deniers, to the closet scientists, to the fact clarifiers, and to those I believe may cancel their Times subscription over this article.

Want to see your blood pressure go up? Read this first set of comments.

• I think most of these afflictions are psychosomatic, a reaction to all sorts of anxieties.
• I strongly suspect that a large number of mothers are imposing an allergy diagnosis on their children because it is (was?) the latest “fashion.” Who wants their kid to be “left out” when all of the other kids are participating?
• Half of these “allergies” are made up by people who want some sympathy. And to you overbearing parents that scream when your child sits next to their friend who is eating a PBJ sandwich at school… shame on you. If you’re allergic, you’re allergic, but please spare the rest of us.
• Some people clearly, clearly have a need to show how special they are by what they can or cannot eat!
• I have long thought that most food allergies were false. I blame it on a combination of things: it’s “trendy” to have food allergies, it will get you special consideration, empathy, special foods, and attention; and also it’s a great money-making scheme for naturopaths and other non-science-based “health” practitioners.
• My fellow waiters and I would pour beers down our throats after our grinding twelve hour days and exchange “most ridiculous allergy of the day” stories – the most freakish allergy would earn a free drink.

Of course, there were some equally passionate reactionary comments to the deniers.

• If you do not have a child with food allergies, or if you, yourself, do not have food allergies, then be quiet!!!
• What’s your point, really? Just because someone isn’t ‘allergic’ to a food they need to quit whining about their pains and symptoms and eat it anyway? Should I tell my four year old to suck it up and eat his corn even if it does give him horrible migraines, “because it’s just a simple intolerance and not a REAL allergy?” This ticks me off because so many people are very callous towards us who have food sensitivities. They act like we’re just trying to cause problems. We’re just trying to avoid pain.

Here are what I consider some of the practical comments.

• I have celiac disease. Yes it’s an intolerance not an allergy. It’s also a disease. Eating gluten doesn’t just make me feel ‘uncomfortable,’ it destroys my digestive system. Calling it an allergy is a quick and easy way to get the unenlightened to take my condition seriously.
• It shouldn’t be surprising that people resort to saying “I’m allergic” about foods they’ve learned to avoid. It’s less likely to invite further questions and doesn’t require listing unpleasant symptoms.
• Articles like this downplay the seriousness of this increasingly common condition – and makes those lucky enough to NOT have allergies more callous to our plight.
• People with complex self-directed dieting regimes that they call allergies to get concessions at restaurants are muddying things for people like me who could actually die. Please stop doing that!
• Unfortunately, this article will be used against parents trying to keep certain foods away from their children in school cafeterias.

I think the following comments can help clarify the study and the article.

• True, many people with intense food sensitivities aren’t technically allergic to a food. BUT, sufferers from food sensitivities don’t have to have a severe anaphylactic reaction to know that particular foods give them blinding headaches, body pain, digestive pain, joint pain, exhaustion, etc.
• Does it matter if it’s an allergy or an intolerance? At the doctor’s office, YES, it matters, because the diagnosis may affect treatment. But out in the world, the only word people understand is “allergy.” Therefore, at the doctor’s office, two members of my family have “milk protein intolerance.” On school forms and social situations, though, they have “milk allergy.”
• The term “food intolerance” does not hold the same level of familiarity in everyday language, so it is probably more common for people to use “allergy” to explain their symptoms.
• The title of this report is very unfortunate. Given that the population of the United States is in excess of 300 million, the percentages do tell us that tens of millions of children and adults suffer from genuine food allergy.

There were also many more comments I wasn’t comfortable reprinting!

The bottom line to me is that the New York Times did a disservice to our food allergy and intolerance community by taking a valuable government-commissioned study and sensationalizing it to attract more attention… and so it did, judging by many of the derisive comments of the online readers. It will obviously continue to be incumbent upon us as a community to educate others and to remain vigilant for ourselves.

Meanwhile, I would encourage those who want to learn more about food allergy research to simply read the study themselves. It is actually a relatively interesting read, if you don’t mind scientific study literature (and I would warn that most conclusions can be summed up as “We don’t know.”) It can be purchased for $15 from the JAMA website (click here to view the online Abstract). And no, I do not have a financial incentive to get you to buy the article!

I’d like to hear your views. I have a feeling the emotion is running high in some of you.

Please click on Comments/Leave a Reply below to have your say.

As always, please remember to use the main AllergyEats site ( to rate your restaurant experiences. Hopefully, AllergyEats will not only prove to be a valuable tool in helping our community find more comfortable places to dine, but also to incent restaurants to take food allergies and intolerances more seriously.


    Debbra Valasek

    I thought this was a brief yet amazing article! Thanks!


    I’m not sure how to react to this article. At first, anger does fill your mind as I am definitely one who has to constantly explain my unusual intolerance to tomatoes and peas. It is not life-threatening, but as the woman with a son afflicted with migraines due to corn intolerance states, does that mean my intolerances have to be diminished or deemed not important as others’? The article does make me rethink my plight, and perhaps “allergy” is a strong word that has been used haphazardly at times. My fiancee has an allergy to whey (found in milk). His reaction to the slightest consumption of it is extreme hives, breathing difficulties, and throat swelling that can cause him to suffocate. That is definitely an allergy. The same reaction happens to me when a doctor injects me with penicillin.

    With that said, I know that a migraine is not life-threatening, but it does cause extreme sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, and an entire body ache that renders me numb and lifeless. “Allergy?” I guess by definition, its not. But serious? YES it is. I get scoffs at my tomato intolerance. I don’t want to be “special.” Who wants to give up spaghetti or pizza? Not me!

    But, again, with that said, I understand what this article and the JAMA are trying to do: shed light on the differences of allergy vs intolerance in order to further the study and understanding of both. As much as it arises passion and defenses, we need articles and studies like these. We may not like it, but knowledge is power. And the ultimate goal is knowledge. Maybe soon we can learn how to live with intolerances, how to not exaggerate as to not diminish others’ real problems, and a better understanding of what others’ may need. Its not special treatment. The study of intolerance is needed to find tolerance with each other and ultimately a knowledge of how we can learn to understand, appreciate, and live tolerantly with each others’ differences. Maybe I’m over-reaching, over-analyzing, or just over emotional. But in the end, all any of us really want to do is live safely and comfortably without having to defend how we live. And any study that can help us understand how to do that should be taken seriously.


    Pammy —

    Wonderful comments and a great outlook as well! You’ll certainly never be on the Jerry Springer show, that’s for sure (quite a loss, huh?).

    One thing I want to clarify however, which I don’t think I made clear in the text of the entry and only realized after reading your comments. The JAMA article doesn’t address intolerances at all. I can’t recall if the word “intolerance” is even mentioned. In fact, the JAMA article only mentions the % of the population with food allergies once, as background. It is not a focus of their piece.

    The Times, on the other hand, decided to make this the focus of their story, despite the lack of a correlation with the JAMA article. They cite two comments made by one of the authors of the JAMA piece during an interview with them, which likely caught their attention and caused them to go the route they did. By citing JAMA, however, they tried to give their story more credibility… credibility which is not warranted given the information in the actual JAMA article.

    I’d like to think the ultimate goal of the Times was knowledge. It certainly was for JAMA. For the Times, however, I think the goal was an extreme headline to capture attention. Maybe I’m too skeptical of the media. Regardless, they succeeded.

    Rounding back to your comments, this doesn’t diminish your points about the value of the knowledge that can be gained from the debate over the Times article. Those are great points and a great perspective, in my opinion. However, I felt the need to clarify that I don’t believe the Times was quite as diplomatic and that their comment certainly weren’t supported by the JAMA article they cite.

    Thanks Pammy for another great Comment on this blog. I hope you’ll keep ’em coming.


    This article has taken away the seriousness of those of us with allergies and intolerances. People who don’t have either a food allergy, or a food intolerance, and don’t have a family member/friend that has one, they need to shut their pie hole. Even if it isn’t an intolerance, there is still unwanted symptoms that person is trying to avoid by not eating the food. Then, there’s people like my grandmother who says she’s allergic, and her allergies change by the day (lately, it’s tomatoes, and only fresh tomatoes, not cooked; I have anaphylactic reaction to any tomato, even in the tiniest amounts). People like that make those of us with real allergies/intolerances look like lying idiots who are trying to get special treatment. I don’t respect people who say people with illnesses are ‘faking it’. I’ve had too many ER doctors tell me I’m not having an allergic reaction because I don’t have outward signs. I don’t have any hives when I react, and my throat closes up lower down, where one cannot see. Then, they see my stats drop by 20% and they believe me. People who say they have allergies and don’t are the ones who want attention and special treatment. Not those of us with real allergies.

    Sorry about the rant, but it just gets me so angry when the allergic/intolerant community is not taken seriously about our own health.

Leave a Reply