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Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance: All You Need To Know

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is when the immune system recognises a specific protein in the food or being in contact with a food or /substance as a foreign species. In response to this, our immune system starts to produce specialised cells called antibodies. This is like a warning alarm to the immune system to help it fight off the invading species so it can prevent the infection from spreading.

The type of antibodies produced in food allergies is known as immunoglobulin E (IgE), which further triggers the release of histamine and other chemicals. The chemical histamine causes the allergic reaction symptoms including itching, redness and swelling. Other commonly experienced food allergy symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramping, diarrhoea, feeling faint, wheezing and the more serious but rare reaction of anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis is a more life-threatening reaction that causes difficulty in breathing, low blood pressure and dizziness. Allergic reactions to food are relatively uncommon and only last for a few minutes up to an hour of being in contact with the allergen-inducing food or substance.

Is it possible to avoid allergic reactions to foods and substances?

Most people with food allergies will already know which foods and substances trigger the reaction, so the best way to avoid a reaction is to simply not eat them. Children will normally grow out of their allergies by the time they start school, however food allergies developed during adulthood are most likely to be lifelong. If you’re unsure if you have a food allergies, there are reliable skin-prick tests and skin tests available which can confirm this.

What is a food intolerance?

Food intolerances are caused by the body not being able to digest certain foods or ingredients. They're more common than food allergies, and symptoms appear more slowly after eating and may last longer, even into the next day.

Unlike food allergies, the symptoms caused by food intolerances are not due to the onset of antibodies produced by the immune system. Symptoms of food intolerance include bloating, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, fatigue, joint pain, rashes, eczema and migraines.

Chronic conditions such as eczema, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis, migraine and chronic fatigue syndrome may also be due to an allergy or intolerance to foods or substances.

It’s important to note that a food intolerance may not always be linked to one food item, but can be linked to more than one food item. The foods that a person eats on a regular basis and for a long time are usually the culprits.

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What causes food intolerances?

There are numerous causes of food intolerances. Some people may have a compromised digestive system that lacks enzymes needed to digest food, while those who are lactose intolerant (to the sugar found in milk products) may not have enough of the enzyme lactase in the gut.

This enzyme helps with the breakdown of the lactose sugar, so not having enough of it can cause bloating and abdominal pain. Another leading cause of food intolerances is having a sensitivity to the chemicals and preservatives found in processed foods and drinks.

Can you test for a food intolerance?

Testing for a food intolerance can be difficult, as the best way is to remove the suspected food from the diet and reintroduce the food once symptoms have improved. If the symptoms return after the reintroduction of the food, it’s likely that you have a food intolerance.

A blood test can also confirm food intolerances. To do this, the food should be avoided for at least three months and then gradually be reintroduced.

Luckily, there are many alternatives nowadays to the main food intolerance culprits. Supermarkets stock the ‘free from’ range which can assist with food choices for those with a food allergy or intolerance.

What foods can people be allergic or intolerant to?

The most common food allergies and intolerances are gluten and dairy. There are fourteen identified food allergens, including:

  • Peanuts
  • Cereals containing gluten (such as wheat, barley and oats)
  • Molluscs (such as mussels and oysters
  • Crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters)
  • Celery
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Lupin
  • Milk
  • Mustard
  • Peanuts
  • Sesame
  • Soybeans
  • Tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts).
  • Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if the sulphur dioxide and sulphites are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million.)

If you’re still in doubt about food allergies and/or food tolerances, we best recommend consulting a trusted healthcare professional for more advice.

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