Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

5 symptoms of food intolerance mimic symptoms of allergies. Learn why self-diagnoses tend to be faulty and how an allergy differs from an intolerance.

By Helen Bateman, from Allergy and Asthma Relief

Each time you drink a glass of milk or eat an ice-cream cone, you feel bloated, with gas, stomach pain and diarrhea. Does this mean that you are allergic to milk? Probably not. Usually only young children are allergic to milk and other dairy products; you are probably lactose intolerant. If you lack the enzyme lactase, your body can’t digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Lactose intolerance affects 5 per cent of the population, but among communities where milk is not traditionally consumed as part of the typical adult diet, it is far more prevalent, developing in 80 to 90 per cent of people.

In this area, self-diagnoses tend to be faulty. Although only between 1 and 2 per cent of adults have food allergies, as many as 20 to 30 per cent think they do. Although the allergy rate among children is higher, a far greater percentage of children are misdiagnosed as having a food allergy. And you should be careful not to eliminate too many foods from the diet, such as milk and wheat, as this can lead to nutritional deficiencies causing significant problems.

Instead of an allergy, what many children have is a food intolerance – an abnormal response to a food that is not an allergic reaction. It differs from an allergy in that it doesn’t involve the body’s immune system but rather an inability to digest the food.

It’s understandable that people might think that they have food allergies, since the symptoms mimic those of reactions to infectious agents and other substances, as well as digestive problems. For instance:

* Micro-organisms. Foods contaminated with micro-organisms, such as bacteria, and their products, such as toxins, can trigger symptoms that mimic an allergic food reaction. In reality, the problem is food poisoning.

* Histamines. Some natural substances, such as histamines, can occur in foods and stimulate a reaction similar to an allergic reaction. For example, histamine can reach high levels in cheese, some wines and certain kinds of fish, particularly tuna and mackerel. In fish, histamine is believed to stem from bacterial contamination, particularly in fish that has not been refrigerated properly. If you eat a food with a high level of histamine, you may experience histamine toxicity, which is a reaction that strongly resembles an allergic reaction to food.

* Food additives. Compounds used to preserve, color, or flavor foods are often linked with adverse reactions that can be mistaken for food allergy. These include: sulfur dioxide and sulfites (E220-28), found in soft drinks, sausages, burgers, and dried fruit; and benzoic acid and benzoates (E210-19), common in soft drinks and naturally occurring in fruit and honey; both can trigger asthma in susceptible people. Tartrazine (E102), a yellow dye widely used in soft drinks, sweets, and sauces, can cause nettle rash (urticaria), dermatitis, asthma, or rhinitis.

* Gluten. Some people are gluten intolerant, a condition associated with a disease called gluten-sensitive enteropathy, or celiac disease. It is caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten, a component of wheat and some other grains. A blood test that looks for anti-gliadin antibodies can diagnose this problem.

* Psychological factors, or food aversion. Certain foods may be associated with bad memories. Say, for instance, that when you were young, your parents took you regularly to a local Chinese restaurant. You hated the food: spare ribs, egg fu yung, and wonton soup, and had a miserable time yelling and screaming in protest. Today, when you eat those dishes, you have what seems to be an allergic reaction. Since the foods remind you of those awful experiences, they may trigger a physical reaction to the psychological distress.

* Diseases. Some diseases that share symptoms with food allergies (such as vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, or abdominal pain that becomes worse when you eat) include ulcers, colitis, and cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.

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