To the uninitiated, the phrases food allergy and food intolerance are inter-changeable, with both being used to describe the body’s reaction to certain foods, drinks and ingredients. There are many, too, who know there is a difference between the two phrases but are unsure as to what that difference is and which is the best term used to describe the affliction that they, or someone they know, suffers from.
Consider how many times you have heard somebody complain of a wheat allergy. More often than not, that person is actually talking about a wheat intolerance.
So what is the difference between the two? And why does it matter? What are the most common food allergies and intolerances and what are the symptoms? Can they be treated?
Allergy or Intolerance?
Both an allergy and an intolerance is defined by your body’s reaction to certain foods. An allergy is where your body mistakes something that it comes into contact with as a dangerous or harmful substance and reacts in the way it feels that it should. The most extreme examples of this come from nut and seafood allergies when a person’s body can suffer such an extreme reaction that it is potentially life threatening.
If you suffer from an intolerance, it means that your body is unable to deal with a certain foodstuff. Unlike with allergies, the foodstuff isn’t mistaken for a harmful invader but, because your body doesn’t really know how to deal with it, the whole experience can be severely uncomfortable. Fortunately, food intolerances are not life threatening.
What are common allergies and intolerances?
Nine in every ten allergies are caused by just a selection of foods. These are peanuts, other nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, wheat and soya. The severity of the allergy can vary hugely from minor to life threatening (from anaphylactic shock). While most allergies do come from these eight foods, it is theoretically possible for any food to bring about an allergic reaction.
Food intolerances are very common and tend to be caused by foodstuffs that are present in many of our favourite foods. As well as the discomfort of suffering from the intolerance there can be a huge amount of frustration involved in missing out on some of your favourite foods. Alcohol, dairy, wheat and gluten are the most common cause of intolerance but some also suffer from histamine intolerance which rules out foods such as pickled foods, hard cheeses, processed meats and tinned fish.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of food allergies are similar to that of other allergies so look out for red, itchy skin; a swelling of the face; a feeling of tightness in the throat and feelings of dizziness and perhaps disorientation. With the most severe allergies the symptoms can be very serious and may require a hospital visit.
Intolerances can be harder to define but symptoms most commonly occur in the abdominal area. Feeling bloated, constipated or suffering from cramps or acid reflux after eating can all be signs of an intolerance. Unfortunately a wide range of symptoms, from unexplained weight loss to fatigue, eczema and migraines, can also be caused by food intolerances so if you are regularly unwell you’re encouraged to visit your GP.
What treatment is available?
Treatment is available in the form of managing your symptoms. For instance, if you suffer an allergic reaction to food, this can often be treated with anti-histamines (for minor reactions) or adrenaline (in the case of anaphylactic shock). These treatments will alleviate the symptoms. Unfortunately there is no cure for an allergy so you will have to avoid the food in question.
Similarly, the only treatments available for food intolerances are for the after effects. There are medicines to manage feelings of bloatedness, for stomach cramps and for build-up of acid (as well as the myriad of other symptoms) but, again, there is no cure so food aversion is the only option.
While food allergies and intolerances can be, at best an irritation and a frustration, and at worst, painful or life threatening, with the right tools and advice, you can learn to manage the symptoms and still enjoy a rich and varied diet.
See also the article – are you wheat intolerant?