Food Allergies vs Food Intolerances

Gluten free, fructose free, lactose free, egg free, nut free, dairy free… you name it! I am sure you have realised these terms appearing more and more frequently in magazines, health food shops and restauarants. As a dietitian who watches the food trend constantly, I must say these terms can be misused by food companies to promote sales especially in the last 2-3 years. It is Food Allergy Awareness Week from the 12-18 May and I would like to take this opportunity to explain to you what is the difference between an allergy and a food intolerance and a sensible way to manage these conditions.

Food allergy is an autoimmune response that the body has mistaken foods and chemicals as something harmful to the body. It affects 1 in 10 infants and 2 in 100 adults. The most common food allergens are eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, milk, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat and sesame. Some people are also allergic to bites and stings from insects, medications or latex. Food allergy can result in symptoms like swelling of the eyes, face and mouth, vomiting, hives, rashes and breathing difficulties. Food allergies can be life threathening and the most severe form of allergy is anaphylaxis. People who have anaphylaxis are required to carry an EpiPen or AnaPen, an adrenaline autoinjector in case anaphylaxis happens. People who have allergies have to be extra careful and the only way to manage allergies is avoidance therefore ingredient lists and food packaging can be very helpful.

In comparison, although they share similar symptoms, food intolerance and food allergies have completely different mechanisms; food intolerance is not an autoimmune reaction and it is often not life threatening. The most common foods that cause intolerance are wheat, fructose, lactose from milk and milk products, fructans from onion and garlic. Common symptoms are diarrhoea, bloating, constipation and abdominal pain and it is resulted from chemical reactions. The best management is to eliminate and identify problematic food triggers and tolerance levels. However, do not self diagnose and always seek professional advice to perform testing so you can rule out more serious conditions such as coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease.

Resources like The Allergy Council and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy unit in Sydney have excellent information. A cookbook called ‘Friendly Foods’ developed by the RPAH Allergy Unit have a wide variety of recipes to suit your special dietary requirements.

If you have any questions at all, make an appointment with a Dietitian who can help answer your questions.


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