In this week’s truly heinous edition of Ask Polly, the letter writer casually describes what amounts to multiple attempts on her life by her in-laws. Not only do they refuse to acknowledge her deadly mushroom allergy, they seem to take pleasure in serving them every time she’s over for dinner. Nearly everyone who’s read this column has had the exact same reaction: Holy shit. Are people actually like this?
The answer, frighteningly enough, is yes. Although food allergy sufferers are more likely to endure snide comments and eye-rolls than straight-up attempted murder, the Ask Polly letter writer isn’t exactly alone. Plenty of people either underestimate the severity of food allergies and/or outright believe that everyone who says they have a food allergy is faking it.
We may as well start with the facts. A 2008 U.S. CDC study explains what any parent of school-aged kids knows to be true: childhood food allergies are on the rise. According to that study, roughly four per cent of all kids under 18 in America reported a food or digestive allergy in 2007, and food allergy-related hospitalisations had increased 18 per cent between that year and 1997. Those numbers are likely even higher today.
Editor's Note: In Australia, 10 per cent of children under one have a proven food allergy.
What lots of people don’t know is that adult food allergies are just as severe — and potentially even more widespread — than the stereotypical childhood peanut allergy. A 2019 JAMA Network survey of more than 40,000 adults found that 10 per cent of respondents had at least one diagnosed food allergy, and half of those respondents had developed their allergy as an adult.
The survey results also indicated that adult-onset food allergies are frequently life-threatening, with a quarter of food-allergic adults carrying an Epi-Pen and 38 per cent reporting at least one food-related emergency room visit in their lifetime. Additionally, the survey found that 19 per cent of respondents self-reported a food allergy that hadn’t been diagnosed.
But, you may wonder, what about people who say they’re allergic to gluten when they really mean that they just don’t want to eat it? Isn’t that the real problem here?
Based on the crowing headlines published in response to the JAMA survey — Only 1/4 of Americans Who Say They Have Food Allergies Have Any Medical Proof, Half of People Who Think They Have a Food Allergy Do Not—Study, Many People Who Claim to Have a Food Allergy Actually Don’t, One in 10 Adults in US Has Food Allergy, But Nearly 1 in 5 Think They Do, Millions of Americans Incorrectly Think They Have Food Allergies, Study Finds — you’re certainly not alone.
People sure seem to love to hate the concept of “fake allergies,” so everyone fixated on the proportion of self-reported allergies and ignored the rest of the statistics. (I’m personally far more concerned that 24 per cent of adults with food allergies have to carry an Epi-Pen.) If some people interpret “eating this thing makes me shit my guts out for days” as an allergy rather than an intolerance — that’s their right, and it’s really none of your business.
I kinda can’t believe I have to say this, but when someone says they (or their kids) can’t eat something due to a food allergy, it’s not up to you to fact-check that statement. They’re not trying to drum up attention or sympathy, or set into motion some elaborately evil scheme to ruin your dinner party — they just don’t want a social gathering to end with a trip to the hospital, and are communicating that very reasonable expectation to you in no uncertain terms.
To put a finer point on it, other people’s food allergies have absolutely nothing to do with you. They’re real, they’re potentially very dangerous, and they’re not going away any time soon. So stop being such a dick about it.