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Public perception of food allergy.

BACKGROUND: Although studies that use the double-blind placebo-controlled food challenge suggest that the prevalence of food allergy is about 2%, public belief in food allergy appears to be considerably higher.

OBJECTIVE: The study was undertaken to determine the magnitude and features of the American public's belief in food allergy by surveying a large, demographically balanced population.

METHODS: A simple question about food allergy was incorporated into a broad, self-reported, mailed consumer questionnaire. Five thousand demographically representative American households were surveyed by means of quota sample in 1989, 1992, and 1993.

RESULTS: The response rates were 79%, 75%, and 74%, respectively. Of responding households, 16.2%, 16.6%, and 13.9%, respectively, reported an average of 1.17 household members with food allergy. Individuals reported to be allergic to foods were more likely to be female, particularly adult women. Male individuals with reported food allergy tended to be young, whereas no such skew was noted among female subjects. Geographic differences were observed in reported food allergy, with the highest rate in the Pacific region. Milk and chocolate were the individual foods most frequently implicated in food allergy. Trends were consistent over the period studied.

CONCLUSIONS: Perceived food allergy is widespread and persistent. The characteristics and demographic patterns of this belief are not reflective of known food allergy epidemiology derived from studies in which the double-blind placebo-controlled food challenge is used.

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