Study: 20% of Americans say they have a food allergy — But only 10% really do

CHICAGO — About one in five American adults believe they suffer from a food allergy, but it turns out only about 10 percent actually do, a new study shows.

Researchers say that while about 19 percent of adults think they’re sensitive certain foods, about half of them report symptoms that are inconsistent with a true food allergy, which can trigger life-threatening reactions. It’s believed that about 26 million adults do in fact have a food allergy as diagnosed by their physician. The researchers calculated their findings by using data from a nationally representative survey of more than 40,000 US adults.

“While we found that one in 10 adults have food allergy, nearly twice as many adults think that they are allergic to foods, while their symptoms may suggest food intolerance or other food related conditions,” says Dr. Ruchi Gupta, from the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and a professor in pediatrics at Northwestern University, in a statement.

Gupta says that nearly half of those with food allergies developed the condition as an adult. At the same time, only half of adults with a convincing food allergy actually received a physician-confirmed diagnosis, and less than a quarter were prescribed epinephrine.

“We were surprised to find that adult-onset food allergies were so common,” says Dr. Gupta. “More research is needed to understand why this is occurring and how we might prevent it.”

While about 7.2 million American adults were found to be allergic to shellfish, other prevalent food allergens in the U.S. for adults included milk (4.7 million), peanut (4.5 million), tree nut (3 million), fin fish (2.2 million), eggs (2 million), wheat (2 million), soy (1.5 million), and sesame (.5 million).

“It is important to see a physician for appropriate testing and diagnosis before completely eliminating foods from the diet. If food allergy is confirmed, understanding the management is also critical, including recognizing symptoms of anaphylaxis and how and when to use epinephrine,” says Gupta.

The research was published in the journal JAMA Network Open.