Food Allergies vs Food Intolerance and Sensitivity

If we know one thing for sure, it’s that the prevalence of food allergies and intolerances are on the rise. Let’s take a look at the difference between an allergy and an intolerance and why the incidence of food sensitivity—in all its forms—is skyrocketing.

What are food allergies?

Food allergies are not fun, especially if you’re the parent of a young child with severe allergies. A food allergy results in an unpleasant or dangerous immune-system reaction after the allergic person eats certain foods (e.g. peanuts, sesame, shellfish, etc).

Do food allergies get better?

In many cases, an allergy to a food is chronic and lifelong. In some cases of childhood food allergy, the child may gradually grow out of the allergy as their immune system develops.

What causes food allergy?

The cause of food allergies is unknown, which makes treatment difficult.

Symptoms of food allergy

Severe and anaphylactic reactions can be life-threatening, so its important to know the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Symptoms of a reaction can include digestive problems, pain, hives, or swollen airways.

People may experience:

Pain in the body: for example in the abdomen

Gastrointestinal upset: diarrhoea, indigestion, nausea, passing excessive amounts of gas, burping, reflux, and vomiting

Skin: hives or rashes

Other common signs of a reaction include: colic in bubs, cramping, flushing, itching, or tingling lips.

Treatment for food allergy

If you experience or suspect a reaction, it is always advisable to see a medical professional.

Pharmaceutical drugs, such as antihistamines, may be used to treat mild reactions.

A severe reaction requires an injection with the drug epinephrine and emergency-room care.

People who know they are anaphylactic to foods will often carry an EpiPen.

In adults, it is important to practise self-care and avoid foods that may cause a reaction. For parents of little ones, vigilance and raising awareness amongst friends and other caregivers is vitally important.

What are food intolerances?

Food intolerances are far more common than food allergies. Unlike food allergy, food intolerances are not life threatening, but they may certainly be lifestyle limiting.

Food intolerance is a chemical reaction to a component of the food you eat, which could be either natural or added components.

Food intolerance does not involve the immune system and does not cause severe allergic reactions (i.e. anaphylaxis).

What food chemicals cause food intolerance?

Food chemicals that have been implicated in causing reactions include:

  • Salicylates: cayenne, cinnamon, cumin, curry
  • Amines: cheese, wine, chocolate, some meats, bananas, avocado, ferments
  • Benzoates (which are natural components of foods) berries, tea, herbs, and spices
  • Sulphites: canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, juices, cereals, crackers, dried fruits
  • Night shades: potatoes, capsicum, tomatoes, eggplant
  • Others include a range of food additives which are used in food processing and preservation of foods.

Symptoms of food intolerance

Food intolerance may lead to more diffuse symptoms such as:

  • drowsiness
  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • headache
  • muscular aches and pains
  • anxiety,
  • tremor
  • diarrhoea

The severity of symptoms in food intolerance is dose dependent, whereas food allergy may require exposure to only a minute amount of the food. The dose required to invoke intolerance symptoms can be cumulative over several days of ingestion, rather than immediately on first exposure.

Incidence of food allergies and intolerances

Health practitioners in practice today can attest to the seemingly ever-increasing prevalence of food allergies and intolerances over the last 20 years, especially in children.

In the 10 years from 1997-2007, there was an 18% increase in the incidence of fully blown IgE food allergies in children, and some estimate this number is now closer to 50%.

In Australia, about 1 in 10 infants, 1 in 20 children up to five years of age, and 2 in every 100 adults have food allergies. That’s 10% of babies, 5% of kids, and 2% of adults with food allergies.

These statistics do not even include the even more extraordinary increase in IgG- and IgA-mediated food sensitivities.

How do we explain the increase in food allergy and food intolerance?

The main suspects include our modern diets, overuse of antibiotics, and the hygiene hypothesis.

The role of modern diets in food sensitivities

Modern diets have gone from one of wholefoods encountered similarly for millennia by our ancestors and past generations, to one of more processed by-products and synthesised compounds which are often as foreign to our genetics as they are devoid of nutritional benefit.

The role of antibiotics in food sensitivities

Even as far back as the 1970s, antibiotics were inappropriately doled out like sweets in a candy shop for relatively minor complaints like the common cold. Experts say that the average child in the most industrialised parts of the world have taken around three courses of antibiotics by the time they are two years of age. In the experience of many mums, this is an understatement. One client in our clinic (who allowed us to tell her story here) reported that her bub had been given six doses of antibiotics in the first six weeks of his life, due to a staph infection acquired in the major maternity hospital when he was born.

(If you need more reasons to avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, watch the ABC’s Four Corners The Rise of the Superbugs from 2012 with Professor David Paterson, Queensland-born infectious-diseases specialist.)

The hygiene hypothesis

The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ is essentially a combination of the above two factors, along with the the increased number of caesarean births, sterility of the food supply, and general environmental surfaces. Research suggests that changes in our microbiota may well be to blame for the increase in allergic diseases. And where do most of the microbes in our bodies reside you ask? In the gut. Yep the good old gut!