The Case of the Food Allergy Imposter

One of the thorniest issues for people with food allergies seems to be convincing others that their condition is “real” and that they will “really” get sick from eating certain foods. In research interviews, people have told me about grandparents who knowingly offer food that contains allergies and teachers who allow snacks in the classroom even though they may put an allergic kid at risk. Sometimes simple ignorance of how food allergies work is the issue, and sometimes a restaurant server or caretaker doesn’t know all the different names for allergens that might be listen on a label and fails to share the ingredient list with the person with allergies. Sometimes, though, and most frustratingly, the person offering the offending food finds it unbelievable or illogical that a common food can make someone sick. In the case of older family members, they may think they know better, or figure that what was good for their kids is also good for their grandkids.

I got a reminder of how emotional this can be last week, when I read and retweeted a link to an essay about a mother who claimed her vegan son was allergic to certain foods to help him avoid eating animal products. I saw many other Twitter users retweet the same link, frequently with comments about how disrespectful this mother’s actions were to people with true, IgE-mediated, anaphylaxis-inducing food allergies.

The fact that someone would claim to have food allergies when they did not seemed troublesome for two reasons, based on the commentary I read online.

First, it seemed to make light of the everyday struggles of people with (and parents of kids with) food allergies by suggesting that having food allergies was an identity that one could choose to adopt at will. This flies in the face of what people in the food allergy community know: food allergy is a biological dysfunction that can cause serious health problems and that is sometimes difficult to diagnose, especially in very young children. It’s far from a desirable “identity” for many people with the condition because of the ways in which it disrupts home life and social life.

Second, many folks expressed concern that if servers and caretakers founds out her son wasn’t really allergic, they would be less likely to believe it when other people who really do have allergies ask for accommodations. As if it isn’t already hard enough to get people to “believe in” food allergies (which, of course, is a medical fact, not a matter of belief), this mother’s actions might prompt non-food allergic people to mistrust those who are food allergic or to cut corners with food allergy accommodations. In other words, there was a lot of fear that this one bad apple would spoil the bunch.

The response to this article highlighted for me the amount of hurt and anxiety many food allergic folks and food allergy parents feel when explaining their condition and requesting accommodations is met with resistance and disbelief. It’s understandable when, for some, eating the wrong food can be a serious health matter, requiring immediate, sophisticated medical care. Plus, many people need to put in a lot of effort to convince others that their allergies are a real medical condition that can cause real harm. Managing food allergies means constantly asking questions no one else has to ask and explaining and defending oneself, which gets tiring and frustrating – yet it is necessary because of the potential consequences of eating the wrong thing. Seeing someone ride on the coattails of all the awareness efforts of food allergic people and advocates looks like cheating, and some fear it might counteract campaigns to present food allergy as a serious, verifiable medical condition.

What do you think about this article? How did you respond to it? Are there angles in the article I cited or the online responses to it that you think I could look into further? Please share and leave comments!

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