It’s Not Cool to Fake a Food Allergy

Almost 5 percent of the population suffers from a food allergy, which makes it really uncool to fake one.
Almost 5 percent of the population suffers from a food allergy, which makes it really uncool to fake one.
Photo by Lulu Höller via Flickr Creative Commons

Almost 5 percent of the population has a food allergy, and it’s almost always to one of eight specific food categories: eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat or soy. If the allergy manifests in a child, he or she is likely to outgrow it, unless it’s to peanuts, tree nuts or shellfish. Those allergies are likely to remain throughout adulthood. Allergies are real and they can be very serious. Peanuts, for example, can cause anaphylaxis, or impaired breathing and shock in those who are truly allergic. It’s a life-threatening condition.

Also of concern: the number of people allergic has been growing since 1997 and no one knows why. 

The word “allergy,” though, has been co-opted by disingenuous diners as a manipulative word of power to wave over the heads of servers. It’s fine to say, “I don’t like cucumbers” or “If my food is too salty, I feel bad afterward.” Those are legitimate preferences and reasonable statements.

It is flat-out wrong, though, to fake a medical condition. To claim an allergy when none exists is a type of “crying wolf” that is not only annoying but a disservice to those who really do have one. There are so many people running around claiming “allergies” now that it makes it harder for those with real ones to be taken seriously.

Allergy vs Intolerance vs Sensitivity

There are some really big differences between the terms “allergy,” “intolerance” and "sensitivity." An allergy means the body’s immune system will react with negative repercussions. There are specific medical treatments to address those issues. “Intolerance” means the body lacks an enzyme needed to digest a particular food component. “Sensitivity” is the more nebulous, catch-all term, referring to non-life-threatening conditions that include everything from headaches to increased blood pressure.

The fakers make it harder for the ones really suffering. The following is a personal account on the Momtastic website from someone who suffers from celiac disease:


“My body’s intolerance of gluten led me to spend much of my childhood curled in a ball holding my stomach against the worst imaginable pain. It gave me rashes, stunted my growth, and affected my physical and emotional life in myriad other ways. So, I fully understand the potential ramifications of a food allergy or intolerance. What I absolutely cannot stand, however, is the freedom we’ve taken as a society to just decide that entire food groups are not okay, without real cause. […]

It used to be that when I asked a server or grocer a question about the ingredients in a food, they responded with the information I needed or at least a mystified “I’m not sure,” followed by whatever investigating they could possibly do. These days, the first thing I get is an eye roll. The jury’s still out on whether Celiac is genetic, but I’m hoping my own kids won’t ever experience that reaction, or a plate of curiously “safe” food that makes them sick. But I know that if they do, it will have something to do with the fact that everyone is pretending to have allergies these days, and the people who make, serve and sell our food are getting frustrated.”


Here are a few ingredients people claim they are “allergic” to — and are most likely not.

Concerned about MSG in Chinese food? Have you eaten a bag of Doritos lately? It's there, too — as well as in tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and your body.
Concerned about MSG in Chinese food? Have you eaten a bag of Doritos lately? It's there, too — as well as in tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and your body.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

MSG

One of the most frequent claims is that people are allergic to MSG, or monosodium glutamate. Monosodium is salt. Glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid that is now strongly suspected to be “brain food.” People might be sensitive to an excess of MSG, but are not allergic. So, don’t claim you are the next time you visit a Chinese restaurant. Furthermore, people who eat just about any flavored chip, including Doritos, are definitely not sensitive to MSG, because those and many other foods include lots of it. The compound occurs naturally, even in aged cheeses such as Parmesan, and in tomatoes, mushrooms, walnuts and soy sauce. Why is it included? Because it makes food taste good and provides the compelling “fifth flavor” known as umami.

So, why do so many people believe it causes headaches? Incorrect hypotheses, flawed experiments that involved mice injected with enough MSG for a horse, and the wrong cause-and-effect associations. In other words, bad science. Since then, study after study has failed to find proof of MSG allergies.

No, you're not allergic to salt, although you may have a sensitivity that may indicate a bigger health risk.
No, you're not allergic to salt, although you may have a sensitivity that may indicate a bigger health risk.
Photo by wlodi via Flickr Creative Commons

Salt

Sodium is in the blood and is necessary for life. People are not allergic to salt, although people can indeed be salt-sensitive, allergic to other chemicals that come along for the ride (like iodine or trace minerals in sea salt) or even to medications that include sodium chloride. (Salt-sensitive people have much to worry about, as their risk of premature death has been shown in studies to be about equal to that of someone with hypertension.) 

One of the big reasons for the rampant allergy claims is confusion within the medical industry itself — and that’s not even to mention all the websites that specialize in herbal cures, home remedies and other “medicine” based on pseudoscience or no science at all. Getting actual facts on allergies is like getting diet advice. Everyone has an answer, and many of those answers will be in direct conflict with others.

Gluten

The current fad in dining and grocery shopping is to claim a need for gluten-free food. First off, the issue is gluten intolerance, not allergy. The thing is, non-celiac gluten intolerance was debunked way back in 2014 by the very researcher who claimed to have discovered it in the first place. Only about 1 percent of the population actually has celiac disease, but as of 2015, 18 percent of the population now buys gluten-free foods — and pays more for products it doesn't need.

As Dr. Ricky, a real-life biochemist who runs the Science Based Cuisine blog, says, “People have every right to choose not to eat something. But allergies are truly life-threatening and should not be taken lightly.”

In other words: Don’t be a poser.


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