A surprisingly high rate of allergies among Kiwis has been revealed by a major survey into our food habits, sparking calls for greater Government support.
Almost a quarter of households have someone with a doctor-diagnosed food allergy, according to the biggest snapshot in a decade of our eating habits.
The Bayer Food Focus Project found that 23 per cent of households reported one or more people with a doctor-diagnosed food allergy.
This rose to 40 per cent when the question was widened to include an intolerance or undiagnosed allergies. And households of younger respondents were more likely to be affected.
The food allergens most reported in the survey - a joint undertaking by worldwide life sciences and pharmaceuticals company, Bayer and the NZ Nutrition Foundation - were cow's milk, peanuts, wheat, shellfish and eggs.
"It should send clear signals to the Ministry of Health that food allergy is a major public health concern needing urgent attention," Allergy NZ chief executive Mark Dixon told the Herald On Sunday.
"It is vital that children and adults with suspected food allergies receive appropriate diagnostic testing and clinical advice to ensure food is not unnecessarily avoided and quality of life is not unduly impaired."
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Food allergy is an expensive, potentially life-threatening condition that can only be managed by completely avoiding the food concerned and being prepared in case of an acute allergic reaction (anaphylaxis).
It presents a significant burden for individuals and families, including the cost of special foods, major limitations on lifestyle, and the psychological impact of living with a life-threatening condition, Dixon said.
"This is made even worse by Pharmac's refusal to fund EpiPens for those with a severe allergy who are at risk of anaphylaxis."
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Reacting to gluten, or gluten intolerance, which is not the same as an allergy, was included in the survey, so this suggests 23 per cent is on the high side, Dixon said.
But, even taking that into account, he said, the number is still greater than expected and the results were revealing as very few studies have been done on the prevalence of allergies in New Zealand.
A Health Ministry spokesperson said food allergy is a common condition in early childhood, affecting up to 10 per cent of children under 5 years.
A skin test or blood test is needed to confirm a food allergy.
Many grow out of it as they age. "This means that reassessment and eventual cautious reintroduction of the offending food is an important part of ongoing management."
Because food allergy among the young was common, referrals to paediatric services could be high and needed to be balanced against available resources.