Food allergy is becoming more common but most of those who believe they are affected are misled, says a report published by the Government Food Standards Agency.

Food allergy is becoming more common but most of those who believe they are affected are misled, says a report published by the Government Food Standards Agency.

Between 20 and 30 per cent of the population say they react badly to one or more foods but objective tests show that less than 2 per cent actually do so, the report says. Most adverse reactions to foodstuffs are to natural foods and not to synthetic additives, such as colourings and flavour enhancers, about which there is most public concern.

However, the problem of food sensitivity, though smaller than widely assumed, is growing and affects 1.4 to 1.8 per cent of the population - 80,000 to 100,000 people - according to one study. The report says this figure is probably an underestimate.

Among children the incidence is more than four times higher, at 8 per cent of the child population. Most reactions involve skin rashes, wheezing or gastrointestinal upsets but more serious events such as anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction involving all the body's systems, are also on the increase.

The commonest foods to cause a reaction in children are cows' milk, hens' eggs, wheat, nuts and soya, which account for 90 per cent of cases. In adults, the commonest foods are nuts, fish and shellfish, which account for a similar proportion of cases.

One of the greatest areas of concern is that certain foods may trigger behavioural problems in children. Several reports have suggested that removing "junk" food from children's diets and giving them fruit and vegetables can improve delinquent behaviour but the report said the design ofthe studies was flawed and it was "not possible to assess their significance".

Adults who suffer from migraine commonly blame their condition on diet. In one study of 429 sufferers, one in six named at least two foods out of cheese, chocolate and citrus fruits as the culprit.

People who are genuinely allergic to one food or substance may find they cross-react with another. Latex allergy, which produces skin rashes and wheezing in sufferers, may also manifest itself as an allergy to banana, kiwi fruit, avocado, potatoes, tomatoes and chestnuts.

The report, by a working group of the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment chaired by Professor Peter Aggett, of theLancashire postgraduate school of medicine, recommends a warning system be set up to record reports of adverse reactions to foods by consumers and doctors.

Among 29 recommendations it calls for better monitoring, improved diagnosis and more research and says that doctors, the public and the food industry should be made more aware of the dangers.

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