Food sensitivities among young school kids aren’t nearly as common as their parents would have you believe. According to a new Swedish study, “reported food hypersensitivity was eight times more common than allergies confirmed by allergy tests.”
That is, for every 100 kids who come to school and tell teachers about their allergy or hypersensitivity to milk, eggs, fish, or wheat, only 12.5 of them actually have a real need to avoid those foods. And the problem gets worse as the kids get older.
So are these children, aged 7 to 8 years, just fussy eaters? Do their parents spend too much time reading the Internet? Neither, says the study. The problem is that many of these kids were correctly diagnosed as sensitive to certain foods just after birth, but their cautious parents are still keeping them away from those foods years later, even though they lost all sensitivity, often before school age.
The study, led by Anna Winberg of Umeå University in Sweden, looked at children in three municipalities of northern Sweden. Children who reported allergies were given tests to see if they really were allergic to those foods. At age 7 to 8, 21% of all children reported food sensitivity. By 11 to 12 years, that had risen to 26%. The results showed that these reported figures were eight times higher than the true incidence of allergies.
There are real consequences to this kind of mistake. The children who had been unnecessarily avoiding milk products, for example, had a lower Body Mass Index than other children, something that sounds neat for overweight adults, but not for growing children.
The choice of foods for the study–milk, egg, fish, and wheat–nicely sidesteps another possible cause for parents misreporting their children’s allergies. It’s easier to tell teachers and other parents that your child is glucose intolerant than it is to ask them not to feed cake and candy to your kid.
The answer? Parents should keep on top of their kid’s food needs, with ongoing testing to see if any sensitivity suffered as a baby continues, or has already disappeared. “The results of this study show how important it is with correct allergy diagnoses and to recurrently evaluate children’s food allergies to avoid unnecessary elimination of food,” says Winberg.