Confusion about food allergy and intolerance is being fuelled by people self-diagnosing or using dubious tests such as hair analysis, according to a leading Perth immunologist.
Richard Loh, president of the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, says a surge in people claiming to have allergies is adding to waiting lists at hospital clinics and making it difficult to educate the community about the serious risks posed by proved food allergies.
Industry sources estimate that for every person diagnosed with coeliac disease, 20 Australians eat gluten-free foods because they believe they are gluten intolerant.
Though a blood test and small bowel biopsy were used to confirm coeliac disease, the diagnosis of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity was less clear, with some research suggesting gluten might not be the culprit after all.
Dr Loh said some alternative health practitioners used hair analysis and Vega testing to advise people that they were allergic to foods such as cow's milk, when in fact they might only have a mild intolerance and their risk of a severe allergic reaction was "zero".
"Some food providers then think allergies are not that serious because all you get is a bit of diarrhoea or something," he said.
"Yet I'm aware of two patients in Australia in the past two years who have died from cow's milk allergy, so it's very important to distinguish between allergy and intolerance and yet a lot of people don't really seem to know what they have.
"Some people feel bloated after they eat wheat and think they're allergic to it, but with true wheat allergy some people will have anaphylaxis.
"It doesn't mean intolerance is not important, but people need to distinguish between the two."
Dr Loh said some parents had told him their children were allergic to caffeine, when what they meant was that if they gave them cola they reacted in a certain way.