Sense about Science (SAS) has released a new guide, entitled Making Sense of Allergies. This no doubt follows in the wake of a slew of recent media attacks targeted at those removing food groups, such as grains and dairy, from their diets in the interest of health and longevity and to deal with the growing problem of food intolerances and sensitivities. 

As you tuck into the opening chapters of the document, you might get the feeling that Sense About Science has started finally to live up to its name, which might suggest to the unsuspecting that the organisation's about making sense of complicated, emerging or contentious areas of science. Unfortunately, the old Sense About Science biases come back to the fore in Section 4, entitled Allergy Myths. The report also doesn’t appear to be dated, although we know it was released on 4 June 2015. 

The charity that ‘makes sense of science’

Sense About Science (SAS) is an organisation whose patron and peer, is self-confessed skeptic Lord Dick Taverne.  Accordingly, it’s diametrically opposed to natural and alternative medicine and strongly in support of drugs, vaccines and GMOs. It goes out of its way to ‘debunk’ what it considers to be the ramblings of quacks and snake oil salesmen.

The new allergy guide has been written with support from an esteemed line up, namely, the British Society for Immunology, Cochrane UK, Allergy Academy, Allergy UK, Asthma UK, Anaphlaxis Campaign and the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology. However, there is a conspicuous absence of organisations involved at the clinical coalface in dealing with food intolerance and chemical hypersensitivity - including medical doctors specialising in this field, such as those represented by the British Society of Ecological Medicine.

Sections 1 to 3 of the guide has some good material and is a reasonable representation of the science as far it relates to allergies.  Whilst the guide correctly defines true allergies as distinct from food intolerances or what they term “difficult to diagnose conditions”, which are “easy to confuse with allergies”, it appears to dismiss the latter two as trivial, and along with the media even refers to such complaints as the allergy obsessions of the ‘worried well’. Elsewhere, in an apparent contradiction, the guide warns that such symptoms could require proper diagnosis.

The Guide through an ANH lens

Despite an encouraging start, the guide goes rapidly downhill in Section 4, entitled “Allergy Myths”. This was the perfect place to differentiate between allergic reactions, food intolerance and chemical hypersensitivity.  But instead, the guide offers examples of these latter two responses and explains why they are not allergic reactions and how the drive for a more “‘natural’ life or diet”, and a reduction in “man-made chemicals” is somehow to blame, as “most allergies are to naturally occurring substances”. 

This leaves the reader with a view that these types of reaction are probably psychosomatic, which is certainly not the case with food intolerances and chemical hypersensitivities. By example, the term "food intolerance" brings up some 736 citations for published scientific studies in PubMed, while "chemical sensitivity" brings up 1,058. The guide insists that man-made chemicals are good whilst natural one's are risky.  In wanting to stay away from the use of ‘quack-associated’ terminology, the word ‘allergy’ is used throughout where, more correctly, it should in some places be substituted for the word ‘intolerance’.  As such, it leaves the guide looking at fault of perpetrating some of its own ‘allergy myths’.

The final 6 pages are devoted to dealing with (aka debunking) ‘allergy myths’ that mirror very closely the concerns of many health conscious people (or “worried well” as we are referred to in the guide) doing their best to live a more natural lifestyle while staying in tune with the natural environment. 

The following is a snapshot overview of a few, based on supposed myths:

"Toxic Overload"

The section seems to be a mish mash of statements taken from the natural and integrated medicine sector and strung together so they make little scientific sense.  Whilst clarity could have been sacrificed for brevity, it feels more that the aim is to show the natural health sector in as grey a scientific light as possible.  We know from a past SAS report that the issue of ‘toxic overload’ is a particular bugbear, so it’s no surprise to see the concept rubbished here too and laid at the door of “natural health clinics and books”.  The guide assures us that there is no evidence for a link between ‘toxins’, allergies, and inflammation.  Apparently, if it occurs at all it must involve a different part of the immune system to an allergic reaction.  To that final sentence, yes, we agree – as would anyone with a sane mind, cognisant of the science, including clinicians of integrated or natural medicine!

Despite not being true allergies, many of the chronic allergy-type symptoms may nevertheless be arising from inappropriate low grade, ongoing immune reactions to ingested, inhaled or absorbed substances or secondary detoxification metabolites within the body, as a result of various factors, including genetic predispositions.  As with coeliac disease and other autoimmune conditions, the immune system can also react to its own cells.  Unresolved, such symptoms result in chronic inflammation, compromised gut integrity, and subsequent mitochondrial dysfunction.  Such a situation may lead to a spiral towards chronic ill health and disease.  As many clinicians and sufferers are aware, wheat and dairy intolerances are common drivers of such a spiral. 

Contrary to what SAS or the mainstream dieticians would have you believe, removal of these food groups does not result in malnutrition.  In many instances, it’s quite the opposite as the gut mucosa and associated microbiome begins to repair itself to allow the re-establishment of proper absorption of nutrients.

"GM Food Causes Allergies"

It’s no surprise to see SAS dismiss GM allergies as a myth. The guide claims, “In fact the proteins produced are no different to the same protein produced in any plant bred conventionally and wouldn’t inherently be more likely to cause an allergy.  If someone is allergic to soy, they will be allergic to soy from both conventionally bred and GM-bred plants”.  However there are novel proteins that can be formed that are distinct from those that are involved with the specific GM trait e.g. the brazil nut allergen in transgenic soybean 2S albumin.

It is well recognised that, contrary to what is claimed by the biotech industry and pro-GMO governments, that allerginicity testing during the pre-market evaluation of GMO crops is grossly inadequate.

"You can Prime Your Baby’s Immune System"

Solely focuses on issue of exposing babies to allergens early in life and how dangerous this advice is given how much is still unknown about the mechanisms behind allergies.  Interestingly, there is no mention of the importance of vaginal delivery to populate the protective gut microbiome.  Yet conversely, an important unintended side effect of caesarian sections, which are approaching 50% of births in many industrialised countries, is the correlation with serious gut disorders such as coeliac diseaseBreastfeeding, as a means of providing key immunological factors is not mentioned either.  Among the factors in breast milk are immunoglobulins, nucleotides, cytokines and antimicrobial proteins and peptides, such as lactoferrin, defensins and cathelicidins – all of which intended by nature to support the building of a strong, robust immune system capable of dealing with the insults inflicted by life without developing allergies.

"Natural treatments are better than pharmaceuticals"

The huge breadth and depth of this subject area is dealt with in one paragraph in the guide.  But the only natural treatments mentioned are royal jelly and honey – both of which come with dire warnings lest someone discontinue prescribed medication and replace their steroid inhaler, for example.  Raw milk, as a source of E. coli, is also warned against.

Clearly it would be ridiculous to argue that all natural treatments are effective in all individuals. But Robert Verkerk PhD has previously commented that, “as far as we are aware, the integrative medicine sector is the only sector that is consistently having clinical success treating and preventing chronic disease using dietary interventions… The sector is strongly plugged into, and plays a key role in, pushing forward the boundaries of nutritional science”.  Such modalities of natural medicine are well placed to be able to cater for an individual's unique metabolic, biochemical, genetic and nutrient requirements, and to assist through a diverse range of dietary and lifestyle interventions, taking into account the individual's epigenetic and epigenomic terrain. 

In summary

Whilst allergies are specific, generally well defined responses to an allergen, that may even be life threatening, food intolerances, by contrast, are most often reversible with careful management, generally involving removal of that food.  Pharmaceutical interventions typically deal with symptoms alone, making them essential in life-threatening situations, but they may have side effects, and fail to resolve the underlying issues.  Food intolerances and chemical sensitivities are chronic conditions wherein the underlying issues require resolution so healthy balance can be restored. 

In our view, the new SAS guide fails to adequately define the difference between allergy, food intolerance and chemical hypersensitivity, and its purpose seems more to warn off people from natural medicine than clear up myths and misinformation around allergies.


We would always recommend that those concerned about allergy-type symptoms or sensitivity reactions consult with a practitioner with relevant specialist experience.  Practitioner lists can be found via organisations such as the Institute for Functional Medicine and the British Society of Ecological Medicine.  For allergic reactions, please consult your doctor or visit the nearest medical facility.

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