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Social Media and Food Allergy/Intolerance - Richard Hamshaw

It is estimated that around 1-2% of the adult population have diagnosed food allergies, with 5-7% of infants experiencing allergic reactions [1]. Allergic reactions to foods can occur when only small amounts of food are ingested, and can be life threatening e.g., in the case of anaphylaxis (where dangerous breathing difficulties and low blood pressure can occur) [2]. Many people confuse food allergies with food intolerances, the latter seeing certain foods having negative effects on the body, such as bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, or vomiting. Subsequently, food intolerant individuals may be able to consume small quantities of the food they are intolerant to without life-threatening effects, but understandably often prefer to avoid the specific foods for their well-being and comfort [2]. Coeliac disease is often assumed to be a form of food intolerance; it is actually classed as an autoimmune disease. Ingesting gluten (a protein present in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye) leads to damage to the lining of the small intestine, negatively affecting nutrient absorption and digestion [2]. People who suffer with a food allergy or intolerance are often met with challenges when eating outside the home [3]. Pre-planning is often a necessity in knowing where one might be able to "safely" eat out [4]. Even the assessment of product or dish descriptions on a menu may not be enough to know if a specific allergen is present in that meal, and thoughts often centre around issues of contamination in preparation, as well as feelings of embarrassment in having to ask, or feeling like a nuisance [5].

There is perhaps new hope for allergy/intolerant consumers in the introduction of new legislation for non-prepacked foods (e.g., food available in restaurants, cafes and markets) [6]. Food retailers are now required to provide their customers with ingredients information relating to 14 main allergens, which include; celery, cereals containing gluten (e.g., wheat, rye, barley, and oats), crustaceans (e.g., crab, lobster, prawns), eggs, fish, lupin (lupin flour and seeds), milk, molluscs (e.g., mussels and squid), mustard, tree nuts (namely almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecans, brazils, pistachios, macadamia nuts or Queensland nuts), peanuts, sesame, soya, and sulphur dioxide (found in dried fruits, as well as drinks).

Social media platforms can give both individuals and organisations access to an array of information quickly (in real-time) and discreetly (due to the open-access nature of the internet). An individual might wish to follow the hashtag discussions associated with a specific topic, or an organisation might be able to explore how well a service has been received or whether they are reaching their target audience. Social media research more generally has found that social media often acts as a key support avenue (e.g., for parents), where information is sought, and questions are asked and answered [7]. Today several allergy support organisations and agencies make use of social media to help support people with food allergies and intolerances (e.g., Allergy UK, Anaphylaxis Campaign, and Coeliac UK; to name a few). They post useful and important information, such as product recalls, research findings, or information about local support groups and, more recently, about new legislation.

Through social media research, attitudes, discussions and public opinion surrounding points of interest (such as new legislation) can be investigated in a different way to more traditional points of contact, such as telephone help-lines or surveys. In fact, research has suggested many people will disclose information or give opinions that they would not have in face to face interaction ("online disinhibition"[8]). Social media platforms (e.g., Twitter with hashtag-following) give researchers opportunities to mine a different research environment, which holds a much wider array of socio-economic statuses, backgrounds, and ages than ever before [9]. Utilising food allergen concerns as an investigative lens, this research project aims to explore how food allergen information is sought and exchanged via social media and why, how social media forms a network of support for food allergy/intolerance sufferers, and how trust and credibility is infered on social media platforms.


1. House of Lords (2007). Science and Technology Sixth Report: Allergy. London, England: The Stationary Office Ltd.

2. Sense About Science (2015). Making Sense of Allergies. London, England: Sense About Science. Available at http://www.senseaboutscience.org/

3. Cummings, A. J., Knibb, R. C., King, R. M. & Lucas, J. S. (2010), The psychosocial impact of food allergy and food hypersensitivity in children, adolescents and their families: a review. Allergy, 65, 933-945.

4. Avery, N. J., King, R. M., Knight, S. & Hourihane, J. O. (2003), Assessment of quality of life in children with peanut allergy. Pediatric Allergy & Immunology, 14, 378-382.

5. Primeau, M. N., Kagan, R., Joseph, L., Lim, H., Dufresne, C., Duffy, C., Prhcal, D., & Clarke, A. (2000). The psychological burden of peanut allergy as perceived by adults with peanut allergy and the parents of peanut-allergic children. Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 30 (8), 1135-1143.

6. Food Standards Agency (2013). Advice on Food Allergen Labelling. London, United Kingdom: Food Standards Agency.

7. Duggan, M., Lenhart, A., Lampe, C., & Ellison, N.B. (2015). Parents and Social Media. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/07/16 /parents-and-social-media/

8. Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 7 (3), 321-326.

9. Dutton, W.H. and Blank, G., with Groselj, D. (2013) Cultures of the internet: The internet in Britain. Oxford Internet Survey 2013. Oxford, England: Oxford Internet Institute (University of Oxford).



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