Allergy between the ears?


  • R. Shepherd


Estimates of the true prevalence of food allergies tend to be around 2-3% in adults, whereas the perceptions of food allergies by the public tend to be much higher. There are many potential reasons for these differences, including the tendency by the public to include all forms of intolerances and adverse food reactions rather than just true allergies. But even taking this into account, the prevalence of food intolerances is higher than that measured in controlled studies. While there has been relatively little work on how the public thinks about allergies, there has been more extensive work on perceptions of other risks. Here one of the reasons for differences between lay and expert estimates of risk lies in the public considering many other characteristics in addition to the probability of harm. These characteristics include how voluntary the risk is and the degree of control. One of the key concepts to emerge from this literature is the ‘availability heuristic’, which predicts that information which is repeated frequently will be cognitively available and therefore appear to be more likely to members of the public. The issue of food allergies is now much more in the public eye than in the past, because of both coverage in the media and the labelling of foods. The more frequent discussion of various food allergies would therefore be more likely to make the public see food allergies as more common. There is a need to understand how the public thinks about food allergies, and although the literature on general risk perception can offer pointers in this area, it is no substitute for research directly addressing public perceptions of allergies, intolerances and adverse reactions to foods.