Could YOU have a food allergy or food intolerance?
According to Allergy UK, around 21 million people suffer from allergies in the UK alone, although not all of these are food related. Both allergies and intolerances can severely affect a person’s quality of life and impact both work and social life depending on the severity of symptoms experienced. These symptoms can range from the mild to the more serious. Food allergy is potentially life threatening, and while food intolerance is not a risk to life, it can still cause severe discomfort and/or aggravation in some way.
It is important to understand that there is a difference between an allergy and food intolerance. Food intolerance is far more common than a food allergy, but both involve a reaction to food. Both food allergies and food intolerances are however on the increase worldwide and the range of foods people are being affected by has also widened over the years as well. Research has not quite determined exactly why allergies and intolerances are on the increase, but it is suspected that a range of factors play a part in their increase. Environmental factors, genetics and processed food consumption are all thought to play a big part in allergy development and some researchers have suggested that a lack of certain nutrients in the diet, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, specific antioxidants and also Vitamin D, may also play a part in the development of allergy.
Difference between food allergy and food intolerance
It is important to understand the difference between allergy and intolerance, especially if you are wondering if you may be one of the many people affected. Food allergies are caused when the body reacts to certain proteins found in food. The body’s immune system reacts abnormally to these proteins and identifies them as being harmful, which then causes an immune response. Chemicals are released by the body to combat and ‘fight’ what the body views as an infection and it is these chemicals that cause the characteristic symptoms of an allergic reaction. A food intolerance does not involve the immune system in the same way as a food allergy does. An intolerance means that the body has difficulty in digesting and/or metabolising foods and thus can not only affect the digestive system, but can cause symptoms that involve many body systems such as the skin, sinuses and can even be the cause of migraine in some people.
If you experience a food allergy then the effects of this can, in many cases, be seen within a few minutes of consumption, but could also take up to a couple of hours to show. With a food intolerance, effects can be seen quite quickly, but can also take up to a few days to show. Often with food intolerance the amount of something you eat to which you are intolerant, will determine the severity of symptoms, so if you consumed only a small amount, symptoms may not even become apparent or will remain mild, where as a build-up of a larger volume of that food will often aggravate and cause more pronounced symptoms. This is in contrast to a food allergy where even a small amount of food to which there is an allergy can cause a severe reaction.
The Symptoms of Food Allergy and Food Intolerance
The symptoms that can be caused by food allergy and food intolerance can vary from person to person, so it’s important to remember that everyone can react differently. For example a reaction to a specific food in one person could cause a totally different reaction in another person who has an allergy or intolerance to that same food.
Both a food allergy and food intolerance can cause a range of digestive symptoms, but severe allergic reactions can cause symptoms such as anaphylactic shock, breathing difficulties, swelling of the throat and tongue and vomiting. More mild food allergies can result in symptoms such as itching in the mouth and throat, skin rashes and hives as well as nausea and diarrhoea. Symptoms that are more associated with food intolerance include abdominal cramps, constipation and diarrhoea, bloating/excess gas, lethargy, eczema, sinus congestion and headaches and migraines. Many people diagnosed with IBS can often have a food intolerance, which may be the sole cause of their symptoms or cause an aggravation to their symptoms.
If you have long standing symptoms that you have not managed to find a cause for, it’s definitely a good idea to rule in or out the possibility that food may be a cause, or contributing factor, to your symptoms.
Common Food Causes of Allergies & Intolerances
The foods which have found to be the most common allergens include shellfish, peanuts, eggs, soy, gluten and dairy (specifically lactose). When it comes to food intolerance, there is generally a much wider range of foods that could potentially be the culprit, ranging from certain fruits and vegetables, alcohol, meat, E-numbers such as sulphites or Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), as well as dairy and wheat. Pinpointing what food is causing the problem can therefore be much harder with food intolerance, especially if you eat a varied diet. Intolerance testing can be helpful here, or keeping a food diary can also be beneficial in trying to decipher which food may be causing your symptoms.
It is important to note that if there is a family history of allergy, then there is generally a higher risk that any baby born within that family may go on to develop allergies too, so if this applies to you always watch babies and children carefully for any early signs of food reactions and consult your GP should you have concerns.
Lactose Allergy Vs Lactose Intolerance
One common allergy and intolerance is lactose, which is the main sugar found in milk and dairy products and is often one of the most problematic components of milk and dairy in terms of adverse reactions. Symptoms of a lactose allergy and lactose intolerance can be similar, but more severe in an allergic reaction, with abdominal cramping, bloating, excess gas and nausea or vomiting being the main signs. Cows’ milk allergy is actually one of the most common allergies amongst babies and young children, but can often be grown out of as they get older.
It is important to mention, that people with a diagnosed allergy to cows’ milk, and specifically the lactose found in cows’ milk, will most likely NOT be able to use goats’ milk as a dairy alternative, as this too contains lactose, although in a slightly smaller amount. However, for people with a cow dairy or lactose intolerance, goats’ dairy products can, in some people, make a fantastic and safe alternative that can be better tolerated than cows’ dairy products and just as nutritious, even for children. One of the reasons for this, is that although lactose is still present in goats’ dairy, because food intolerance is associated with the difficulty in the digestion and breakdown of specific foods, if foods are easier to digest, this eases the load on the digestive system and foods can pass through more easily without causing a problem or resulting in symptoms. So if you suspect you are struggling with a food intolerance to cow dairy, you may want to try goats’ dairy as a delicious alternative to see if your symptoms reduce or disappear.
Becoming aware of what is in the foods you eat and reading labels, becomes an important part of life when managing food allergies and intolerances. If you think you or your children may suffer with food allergy or food intolerance, consult your GP in the first instance, but there is a variety of help out there through other sources if you need it. You may also find it useful to consult a nutritionist to discuss the changes that can be made to your diet and to make sure your diet still meets your nutritional needs, which can be negatively affected if large food groups are cut from the diet.
- A global survey of changing patterns of food allergy burden in children, 2013. The World Allergy Organization Journal.
- Nature Reviews Disease Primers, 2018. Food Allergy
- Update on food allergy, 2004. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
- Enviromental Research and Public Health. 2018. The Epidemiology of Food Allergy in the Global Context
- The epidemiology of food allergy in Europe: a systematic review and meta-analysis, 2014. European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
- Allergy UK. https://www.allergyuk.org/