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June 6, 2017

Food allergies may not be so common after all, study suggests

Daily Briefing

    Fewer than 4 percent of U.S. residents have one or more food allergies or intolerances, according to a study published Wednesday in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology

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    Study details

    For the study, researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital, the University of Colorado's Department of Emergency Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Partners HealthCare System reviewed the electronic health records of 2.7 million individuals who had been patients at a large health system in Boston between 2000 and 2013.

    The researchers examined the prevalence of food allergies or intolerances by allergen group, racial/ethnic group, and sex. The researchers identified 97,482 patients with food allergies or intolerances.


    The researchers estimated that 3.6 percent of U.S. residents have at least one food allergy or intolerance. The researchers said the prevalence of food allergy and intolerance was higher in women, at 4.2 percent, than in men, at 2.9 percent.

    In terms of racial and ethnic groups, Asian U.S. residents had the highest rate of food allergies and intolerances at 4.3 percent, compared with whites, blacks, Hispanics, and other racial groups—which all had rates below 4 percent.

    Among individuals with at least one allergy or intolerance, the researchers found that the most common food allergen groups included:

    • Dairy;
    • Fruit or vegetables;
    • Peanuts; and
    • Shellfish.

    A little more than half of the patients whom researchers identified as having food allergies and intolerances reported having adverse reactions to their allergens, including:

    • Potentially IgE-mediated reactions, which accounted for 51.2 percent of cases;
    • Unknown reactions, which accounted for 45.5 percent of cases; and
    • Anaphylaxis, which accounted for 15.9 percent of cases.

    Scientists study a new approach to curing allergies


    Li Zhou—a lead researcher on the study, who is part of the general medicine and primary care division at Brigham and Women's Hospital—said, "Recent reports suggest that food allergies are on the rise, with more food allergy-related hospitalizations in the [United States] over the last decade." She added that "the spectrum of severity observed with food allergy highlights the critical need for more allergy evaluations."

    James Baker—CEO and CMO of Food Allergy Research and Education, who was not involved in the study—said the share of patients who reported experiencing anaphylaxis is concerning. "Avoiding or preventing these severe reactions is crucial to ensure the safety of individuals with food allergies," he said.

    Alisa Muniz Crim, a gastroenterologist at Nicklaus Children's Hospital, said many individuals who experience an anaphylactic reaction to a food "need to carry an EpiPen, which contains the drug epinephrine that acts quickly" to treat the reaction (Caryn Rabin, "Well," New York Times, 6/1; Reinberg, CBS, 6/1; Held, "The Two-Way," NPR; Acker et al., The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 5/31).

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