Let's do an informal poll (you can "vote" in the comments section). Do you use the word "allergy" when you really mean "intolerance?"
I guess we'd best define our terms. According to FAAN, a food intolerance "is an adverse food-induced reaction that does not involve the immune system. Lactose intolerance is one example of a food intolerance. A person with lactose intolerance lacks an enzyme that is needed to digest milk sugar. When the person eats milk products, symptoms such as gas, bloating, and abdominal pain may occur."
A food allergy "occurs when the immune system reacts to a certain food. The most common form of an immune system reaction occurs when the body creates immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to the food. When these IgE antibodies react with the food, histamine and other chemicals (called "mediators") cause hives, asthma, or other symptoms of an allergic reaction." I am aware that there are other immune system responses, such as Eosinphilic Enteropathy, and of course conditions such as these should be considered allergy, too. IgE responses are the most common in those with food allergies, to my understanding.
I am intimately acquainted with both food allergies and food intolerances. Regular readers of my blog know that my little boy has a severe allergy to peanuts. His immune system has confused the usually harmless (and delicious!) peanut protein with Evil Body Invaders that must be destroyed immediately. That's allergy.
Now you may not know this about me (and you may not wish to!), but I have a food intolerance. Onions hate me. Which is really upsetting, because being rejected by a food is not the most self-esteem-building moment of a person's life, trust me. Oh, I loved onions: in salads, on pizza, hamburgers, wherever a little extra onion-y flavor is called for. But in my early 20s, I came to realize that this love was violently unrequited and dreadful things would happen to me upon consuming more than a bite or two. I have accepted this and moved on, and am extremely thankful that my love for garlic is mutual and everlasting.
Now way back before I really knew about food allergies, waaaaayy before I even had any kids, I would sometimes refer to my onion intolerance as an "allergy." At restaurants, usually. I learned pretty early on that if I said "Leave the onions off." then I had about a 50% chance of receiving a dish with no onions. If I said "Leave the onions off, I'm allergic." then my odds improved to about a 20% chance of an onion-laden plate. By changing the perception of the severity of an adverse reaction, I saved myself a whole lot of discomfort.
I have a lot (A WHOLE LOT) of sympathy for someone who uses the A-word in order to protect themselves from the adverse effects of their food intolerance. But I now think that it's best to call a spade a spade. An intolerance is awful, but not life-threatening. An allergy, well, you know, death and all that. And as part of my self-identified mission to Educate The World About Food Allergies, I am taking a stand on this Allergy versus Intolerance issue.
I think that overuse of the term "food allergy" may have the unintended consequences of contributing to many misperceptions about food allergies. Consider this statement from a recent Newsweek article:
"Not every rash or stomachache after lunch is an allergy . . . Allergists say a fair number of kids are being told to avoid foods they aren't allergic to. "Studies have shown that up to 25 percent of parents think their children may have a food allergy," says Dr. David Fleischer, of National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, "but they've only been confirmed in about 8 percent."
I think this demonstrates why it's so important for everyone to use the correct medical terminology. People who do not have to live with food allergies day in and day out read a statement such as the one above and, because they don't live it and aren't informed about it, become skeptical. This contributes to the PB&J Wars at schools and daycares, along with the bad feelings, suspicion, accusations, and sometimes even harrassment that makes everybody crazy.
Now calling an intolerance an intolerance is not going to make the PB&J Wars disappear overnight and certainly will not eliminate the trials that come with putting food allergic kids in schools and other populated settings. But I think it will help. It will help to explain to parents of kids without allergies where some of the confusion comes from and help them see that we are not simply overanxious, overbearing parents who panic over every little thing. It will help them know that this Food Allergy Thing is a Very Big Thing, worth a little worrying about and certainly worth a little discussion about how to make a safe environment for small children who can't yet be fully responsible for keeping themselves safe.
It's a start anyway.