Around a third of us believe we have a food allergy. Are we just a nation of hypochondriacs? By Julia Stuart

Most of us know someone who professes to have a food allergy. Suddenly they stop taking ordinary milk in their coffee and go for the soya equivalent. Wheat allergies are another common complaint, with people convinced that their newly discovered status explains why they suffer from bloating. Nothing to do with, of course, the chicken masala, five naan breads and two pints of lager they had the night before.

Most of us know someone who professes to have a food allergy. Suddenly they stop taking ordinary milk in their coffee and go for the soya equivalent. Wheat allergies are another common complaint, with people convinced that their newly discovered status explains why they suffer from bloating. Nothing to do with, of course, the chicken masala, five naan breads and two pints of lager they had the night before.

Chances are, however, that their "allergies" do not exist. A report by the Government's Food Standards Agency says that while up to 30 per cent of the population think they experience adverse reactions to certain foods, the actual number of genuine sufferers is less than two per cent.

Prof Peter Aggett, chairman of the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, which wrote the report, says people claiming to have adverse reactions to food were submitted to "double blind tests" whereby both the patient and the person carrying out the study were unaware whether a placebo or the "problem food" was being tested. Many were found not to react under such conditions. So why do so many people believe they are allergic to certain foods? Prof Aggett believes some latch on to the idea as a way of interpreting their symptoms.

"These things become entrenched in people who are unable to talk their symptom through with someone who has some insight as to other possible causes. I think a lot of it might well be because there isn't adequate professional support to help people if they have these worries."

Claire MacEvilly, a nutrition scientist for the British Nutrition Foundation, blames the media for "scaremongering the consumer". "Headlines like 'One In Three People Is Allergic To Bread' is a gross estimation, and somebody sees that headline and thinks 'I'm often bloated, I eat wheat, I must be allergic'," she says. "Food for the consumer is more than just chemicals. There are psychological reasons why people eat certain things. They think about it a lot when they see scary headlines."

Another significant factor is the availability of what Prof Aggett calls "non-validated" tests for aversions to food such as hair and nail analysis, or kinesiology. "We think that if people have these tests done on them, they really need to be shown to work and produce reliable diagnosis, and as yet that is not the case," he says.

In May, the Advertising Standards Authority asked Surrey-based Goldshield Healthcare Direct to withdraw a national press advertisement for health centres offering screening tests for food intolerances and vitamin deficiency, after it discovered the clinical trial performed on the tests had taken place over 15 years ago, and that its conclusion was "tentative".

The consequences of non-validated tests can be serious. "It does result in people being misdiagnosed and running the risk of having inappropriate treatment," says Prof Aggett. "In some incidences this can result in them being on unnecessarily rigorous exclusion diets where lots of foods have been eliminated to the detriment of their nutrition."

Ms MacEvilly agrees: "If you believe you are coeliac [allergic to wheat] you are going to be missing out on energy from that carbohydrate, and you should be getting 50 per cent of energy from carbohydrate-rich foods. There are also essential vitamin and minerals found in carbohydrates like calcium, iron and B vitamins. "

Prof Aggett says people shouldn't exclude such foods without expert advice. "If there is good dietetic support for these exclusion diets the problem is not so real, but they do need the support of a trained health professional." It is something he believes isn't provided by alternative analysis.

So what should people do if they believe they experience adverse reactions to food? "See their doctor," says Prof Aggett. "Doctors can refer the patient to a specialist centre with appropriately trained staff."

But there remains a substantial body of alternative practitioners who stand by their methods. One is nutritional therapist John Eastman, who practises at London's Hale Clinic, and at times uses kinesiology to help detect food sensitivities. "Governments, the medical establishments and food producers have it in their interests to say that people don't have allergies to food, particularly if you manufacture those foods," says Mr Eastman. When using kinesiology, he first tests the strength of a patient's muscle by pushing against it, and then tests it again when the client has a particular food on his or her tongue. If the muscle becomes weak, it suggests sensitivity.

While Mr Eastman has found kinesiology "extremely effective", he would not base a diagnosis on it. Is there any scientific proof that it works? "I don't really know what it means when people ask me that," says Mr Eastman, who charges £70 for an hour's consultation. "It's backed up by tens of thousands of practitioners who have used the technique effectively for their patients."

Does it work 100 per cent? "No, nothing does."

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