Food Intolerance or Food Allergy?

Next week is Allergy Awareness Week (18-24th April) which presents a great opportunity to raise awareness of how food can contribute to ill health. It’s also a great opportunity to discuss the differences between food allergy and food intolerance and pinpoint some of the main culprits that make allergy a modern epidemic.

Millions of people globally are effected by food allergies. In the last decade alone, the case of food allergies has doubled and the number of hospitalisations caused as a result of food allergy reactions has increased seven fold. This is a worrying sign, indicating that food allergy is on the increase, which is not only concerning from a public health perspective, but also a concern for the purse strings too, as it’s estimated that around £900 million per year is spent on allergies and its treatment in Primary Care. This tends to lead to the question………

….Why is Food Allergy on the increase in the UK?

The UK actually has the highest incidence of allergy in the whole of Europe and is one of the top three countries in the world for allergy incidents. However research has shown that incidence of allergy is increasing worldwide, but primarily only in developing countries. Between 1997 and 2011 food allergies among children increased by 50%, yet there is still no definitive answer to exactly why this is and what is actually causing the global explosion of food allergy. 

Research does suggest that there are a number of different factors influencing this increase in allergy, but one of the main factors is most probably due to the changes in the food we now eat. Processed food consumption has risen dramatically over the years and with this comes the increased consumption of additives and reduced nutritional value. 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 play a part in the development of allergy. More research is needed here, but it certainly highlights the essential need for people of all ages, especially toddlers and children, to eat a variety of nutritionally rich foods and limit the processed ones! Of course genetics, the environment and our hygiene and exposure to certain germs and bacteria, will also all play a part in the development of allergies, but we are unfortunately unable to influence these like we can our diet!

Difference between food allergy and food intolerance

Having either a food allergy or a food intolerance can cause a variety of physical symptoms that range from the mild to the more serious.  Both an allergy and an intolerance involve a reaction to food, however many people do not realise there is a difference between the two, as many people use the two words interchangeably.

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. Food intolerance is more common than a food allergy and 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 cannot only affect the digestive system, but can cause symptoms that involve many body systems such as the skin.

Symptoms of food allergy and food intolerance

In some cases, the symptoms of both food allergy and food intolerance can be similar and in other cases they can be very different, which can lead to confusion. Remember that everyone can react differently, so a reaction to a specific food in one person could cause a totally different reaction in another person who has an allergy to that same food. 

Both a food allergy and food intolerance can cause a range of digestive symptoms, but severe allergic reactions can also 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 of their symptoms.

Common food allergies and food intolerances

As allergies increase, so does the research investigating the common causes and the possible solutions to the growing problem. 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, 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. 

The dairy and lactose dilemma?

Milk is one of the most common foods we hear about when it comes to food allergy and food intolerance and can present a problem to many people, although the exact prevalence is unknown. Lactose, whey and casein are the three main derivatives of milk, with lactose often being the most problematic component when it comes to adverse reactions. Lactose is the main sugar found in milk and both a food allergy and a food intolerance to this component can cause similar symptoms, although an allergy to lactose will generally cause more severe symptoms.  Symptoms most associated with dairy allergy and intolerance include, abdominal cramping, bloating, excess gas and nausea or vomiting. 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 often make a fantastic, safe alternative that is far 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.

Goats’ dairy products, including goats’ milk, is more easily digested than cows’ milk.

Goats’ dairy products, including goats’ milk, is more easily digested than cows’ milk. This is because the fat globules in goats’ milk are smaller than in cow’s milk so the human digestive enzymes (which breakdown food into smaller pieces), complete their breakdown much more rapidly. Whey and casein are the two main proteins found in milk, which some people can also be intolerant too. The composition of these proteins differ between goat and cows’ milk and the protein in goats’ milk forms a much softer curd in the stomach compared with cows’ milk. This makes for much easier digestion and therefore often a reduction or elimination of symptoms.  If you think you may have an intolerance to cows’ dairy then why not try using Delamere Dairy’s goats’ milk, not only is it delicious, but it may well help ease your digestive or skin symptoms too!

Living with a food allergy or food intolerance isn’t fun, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t take pleasure from food. Reading food labels and the finer details of menus can become tiring, but if it means you can lead a symptom free life and eat other enjoyable foods then it is well worth it. 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.  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.

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