Food allergies and intolerances

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What’s the difference between a food ‘allergy’ and an ‘intolerance’? While the terms are often used interchangeably, the two are actually very different.

Food allergy

A food allergy is rare (they only affect approximately 2% of the population) and is a potentially fatal immune response to a substance in a specific food, usually the protein component.

Food intolerances

Food intolerances are far more common and are chemical reactions to specific foods.

Why are the two confused?

The symptoms can be similar – wheezing, swelling, a rash, and gastrointestinal discomfort – but with allergies these may come on within seconds or minutes of eating even the tiniest amount of the food in question and can be life-threatening, while in the case of intolerances the symptoms take slower to arrive and are long-lasting.

Another difference is in diagnosis: food allergies will be easily picked up in tests, while there are few reliable tests for intolerances.

In these cases, an elimination diet might be your most likely way of diagnosing the problem: if you suspect that you are, for example, lactose intolerant, you can cut dairy out of your diet for a few weeks, substitute with lactose-free alternatives and see whether the symptoms disappear.

How to cope

If you are diagnosed with a food allergy – common suspects are shellfish and nuts – you’ll have to avoid that item completely as ingesting even the tiniest amounts can be fatal. With food intolerances, the guidelines are less clear: for some people reducing the amount of the problem food might be enough to help the problem, while for others they need to remove it from their diet completely.

Following a diet that excludes a specific food group without proper diagnosis can be extremely restrictive and potentially harmful, particularly if it is for a child, and it is always advisable to seek medical advice for a thorough a diagnosis of a suspected food allergy. A dietitian will be able to devise a balanced eating plan to accommodate a food allergy or intolerance.

To assist customers with their food choices, Woolworths food packaging indicates the presence of common allergens in the allergen section of the label:  fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, cow’s milk, egg, soya, wheat, gluten and sulphur dioxide.