Old news is new news in food allergy and intolerance

21st January 2010 saw a press release fall into my in-tray from the University of Portsmouth’s press department. It opened:

“Too many people are self-diagnosing food allergies and could be restricting their diet unnecessarily, according to a new report by the University of Portsmouth and commissioned by the Flour Advisory Bureau.”

It went on:

“Research shows that up to 20% of adults think they suffer from a food allergy or food intolerance. However evidence suggests that the real prevalence… is less than 2%.”

The Wheat Hypersensitivity Report, as it is called, is authored by Dr Heather Mackenzie and Dr Carina Venter from the School of Health Sciences, Portsmouth.

Here is Dr Mackenzie:

“There is a clear discrepancy between the number of people who report that they have food allergy or intolerance and the numbers whose food allergy/intolerance can be confirmed by a medical diagnosis.”

That same day, the Daily Telegraph ran with it.

The day after, so did the Daily Mail, with a headline clearly derived from the 20% / 2% figures.

And the Express too.

You’d be forgiven, as a lay reader of any of the pieces – or many similar reports you can find online – for assuming the research fairly new.

The research is not new. It was published in 1994, in the Lancet. There’s no mention of this in the papers or indeed in the press release. When I initially queried the 20% ‘think they are’ / 2% ‘really are’ figures, one of the many PRs involved in promoting the Report freely informed me of its origin. You can find it in the list of references in the full Wheat Hypersensitivity Report.

All this raises a lot of questions to my mind.

Why do the University of Portsmouth and the Flour Advisory Bureau consider data which is pushing twenty years of age relevant and worthy of news? Why did the papers pick this ‘story’ up and run with it so uncritically and apparently unquestioningly? Is 18% of the public really guilty of food allergy and intolerance ‘delusion’? Is there a culture of food hypersensitivity denialism in medicine?

There are many others. Over the coming days and weeks I will try to answer them using the evidence we have, and also examine the follow-up pieces printed in the papers last week, and which will doubtless carry on making occasional appearances for some time to come.

I can’t promise to have all the answers, or to always get it right. I’ll welcome ideas, criticism and debate – and if you hear of any news stories concerning food allergy, food intolerance or coeliac disease, in print or other media, please let me know.

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