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Food Allergy

1 in 13 Canadians is Food Allergic

Between 6 and 8 per cent of Canadians have food allergies, says Dr. Ann Clarke, an allergist and leading researcher at the McGill University Health Centre. In human terms, that means up to one in 13 Canadians is food allergic.

Clarke revealed the new prevalence statistics at the Anaphylaxis Canada Spring Conference in Toronto in May. These figures are calculated from the nationwide SCAAALAR survey (which stands for Surveying Canadians to Assess the Prevalence of Common Food Allergies and Attitudes Towards Food Labelling and Risk), on which Clarke is a lead investigator. SCAAALAR is the first formal national tally of food allergies in Canada, with detailed information from 10,000 individuals.

A few days after Clarke’s Toronto speech, the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology published a follow-up study on the prevalence of peanut and nut allergies in the United States.

In their phone survey of 13,500 individuals, Dr. Scott Sicherer and his colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York determined that peanut and nut allergies in children more than tripled in 2008 from their comparable study in 1997.

In 2008, 1.4 per cent of American kids had peanut allergy and 1.1 per cent had nut allergy compared to 0.4 and 0.2 per cent respectively in 1997. (The combined rate of these two top allergies was 2.1 percent in 2008, compared to 0.6 percent in 1997.)

The SCAAALAR survey, funded by Health Canada and the AllerGen research network, and also published in JACI,  pegged the probable rate for peanut allergy in Canadian kids at 1.7 per cent in 2008, and 1.6 per cent for tree nuts.

Media Muddy Message

These new statistics arrived just as the question is again being raised in the media about how many people truly have food allergies, compared to how many think they have them. An article in The New York Times sparked the debate: it stated that “only” 8 per cent of children have food allergies and 5 per cent of adults have food allergies, then compared that to 30 per cent of the U.S. population who believe they have such allergies.

While these statistics appeared to come from a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Allergic Living obtained a copy of the study and those data are not in the report.

What the JAMA report provides is a review of 72 papers on food allergy diagnosis, management and prevention. In comparing available statistics, the medical article does say that more than 1 to 2 per cent, but fewer than 10 per cent of Americans have food allergies.

The report does not address the question of “perceived” versus true allergy at all, and one of the report’s authors told Allergic Living that the 30 per cent figure cited by The New York Times does not apply to the United States.

JAMA’s study was designed to provide guidance to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as its officials develop guidelines to define food allergies and give criteria for diagnosing and managing patients. The authors found that there isn’t a universally accepted definition of food allergy, and that there’s a lack of well-established guidelines for diagnosis.

“The systematic review of the food allergy literature published in JAMA is helpful in crystallizing the fact that food allergy is common, affecting millions of Americans, but also points out that we need much more research to better understand the exact prevalence, and how to prevent, more easily diagnose and treat this life-changing medical problem,” Sicherer noted.

First published in Allergic Living magazine, Summer 2010 edition.
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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.