UK survey targets food allergy awareness
and intolerance are "all in the mind".
The charity has launched a new edition of its 'Stolen Lives' series designed to highlight the problems faced by those suffering from both conditions.
"During 2006 there were reports in which a small number of the medical profession claimed that food allergy and intolerance was all in the mind and even on one occasion the suggestion that the mind could be trained to cause food allergy," said chief executive Muriel Simmons. "Allergy UK totally refuted these ideas and felt that the next edition of 'Stolen Lives' should give a voice to those suffering abnormal reactions to food."
The issue of food allergy and intolerance has become a highly sensitive one, with scientists, consumers and industry often at loggerheads over the extent of the problem. According to Food Intolerance Network co-founder Dr Howard Dengate, the problem has been exacerbated by confusion over what the two terms actually mean.
"True food allergy is comparatively rare, affecting perhaps 8 per cent of children and 4 per cent of adults," he told FoodNavigator last year.
"It is a quick immune system-mediated reaction to the proteins in a few foods such as milk or nuts and can be confirmed by a laboratory test.
"Food intolerance, on the other hand, is common, reactions are a dose-related and typically delayed response to artificial or natural chemicals in foods, and many foods may be involved with a bewildering range of symptoms. As there are no scientifically proven laboratory tests, diagnosis is through the use of an elimination diet with challenges."
All this has had implications for the food industry. The "free-from" food market for example has been enjoying sales growth of over 300 per cent in the UK since 2000, according to market analyst Mintel.
But while consumers appear to be increasingly aware of the issues, Allergy UK, a national medical charity established to "increase understanding and awareness of allergy and intolerances, to help people manage their allergies," still feels there is a lack of understanding about the condition.
"In our survey of 5,200 people it emerged that 59 per cent of the people responding reported regarding themselves as having a food intolerance and 41 per cent considered that they had classical food allergy," said Simmons.
"Sadly what emerges from this survey is that sufferers generally feel that their GPs lack understanding of their problems and are inclined to dismiss their symptoms as psychological and not food related."
According to Allergy UK's survey, 67 per cent of respondents stated that their GP did not understand their food problems.
Many scientists will refute the findings as having any scientific basis. The figure of 41 per cent of respondents considering themselves to exhibit 'classic' food allergy symptoms is far higher than the figure of four per cent given by Dengate, and will fuel the opinion that consumers largely 'imagine' food allergies.
Nonetheless, food allergy and intolerance have established themselves as major issues that the food industry can no longer ignore. Allergen labelling regulations, which came into force on 25 November, require companies to label all pre-packed foods if they contain any of the 12 listed allergenic foods as an ingredient.
The most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives include cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soybeans, milk and dairy products including lactose.