As you’re probably already aware, there’s been a lot more talk about food allergies over recent years, specifically when it comes to kids. However, having an adverse reaction to a food doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a food allergy – it might be food intolerance instead. The symptoms are similar, which means that food intolerances are often confused for food allergies and therefore misdiagnosed. So, what’s the difference?
Food allergies invoke a response from our immune system when we come into contact with the particular food we’re allergic to. The most common foods causing allergies in Australia include crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, soybeans, tree nuts and sesame seeds. Typical symptoms include swelling, rashes, vomiting, diarrhoea, respiratory issues and, in severe cases, anaphylaxis. Food allergies are more prevalent in children simply because their immune systems aren’t as mature. In the majority of cases, children learn to tolerate the foods that were provoking the reaction and grow out of the allergy. The exceptions tend to be nut and seafood allergies. This is why the prevalence of food allergies is much lower in adults.
With food intolerances, there is no immune response. Instead, our system isn’t processing something in the way that it should be. Common food intolerances include to dairy, chocolate, eggs (particularly egg whites), berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, flavour enhances, histamines and food additives. Symptoms such as sweating, palpitations, rapid breathing, headache, diarrhoea and nausea are normal.
Enzyme deficiencies or undesirable effects to chemicals or additives in our food generally cause food intolerances. The most common example of an enzyme deficiency is lactose intolerance. Lactose is a key carbohydrate found in milk and other dairy products. If someone is lactose intolerant it means they don’t have enough of an enzyme called lactase, which is necessary to break down the lactose so that can be digested and absorbed by the body. Being deficient in lactase causes bloating, diarrhoea, flatulence and cramping when the person consumes dairy, with the severity of symptoms varying depending on how deficient in lactase the person is. It should be noted that lactose intolerance and milk allergies are not the same thing; having a milk allergy means the person has an allergic reaction to the proteins in milk, as opposed to being unable to digest it.
Both chemicals found naturally in our food and additives used in processed food can cause an adverse, drug-like reaction in some people. For example, histamines and other amines are natural compounds that can trigger headaches, flushing, nasal congestion, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and respiratory issues. Histamines in particular are found in high quantities in spinach, eggplant, berries, tomatoes and citrus fruits. Glutamates such as those found naturally in tomatoes, soy sauce and cheese can trigger headaches, tingling and numbness of the face, nausea, diarrhoea and asthma. Salicylate, a natural substance similar to aspirin found in plants, can also trigger hives.
Certain additives, while approved for use by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), can cause adverse reactions in some people, particularly kids. Tartrazine (102) and is often used as a food colouring in soft drinks, cordials, confectionary, jams and prepared baked goods. Benzoate (210) is used as a preservative in the same products. Both additives can cause hyperactivity in some children and induce asthma in asthmatic kids. Sulphites are commonly used in dried fruits, sausages and cordials as a preservative. Sulphite sensitivity is, again, most common in asthmatics and can induce asthmatic symptoms, wheezing and hives.
With similar symptoms, the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance is difficult to spot. Food intolerance reactions can develop quickly or they can take up to a day to present. However, they do tend to be dose dependent, i.e. the more of the offending food eaten, the greater the adverse reaction.
To add to this confusion, adverse food reactions can be caused by other things, such as a physiological aversion to food. Therefore, it’s important to consult a qualified medical professional for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Just remember, a standard allergy test will not uncover a food intolerance, because it’s not an allergy. It’s likely an elimination diet (i.e. removing the suspected food from the diet and waiting how this impacts on the symptoms) will be used to determine exactly what the offending food is.
Note: The content of this article for general informational purposes and is therefore not intended to replace medical advice. For a medical diagnosis and treatment, please consult a qualified medical practitioner directly.
This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Tiny Wings magazine…