Food allergy or food intolerence?
Given that food allergies and food intolerances share many symptoms, including bloating, a runny nose, hives and wheezing, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two.
Words: Jessica Gadd
Food intolerance is increasingly prevalent in Australia. Surveys indicate that some 25 percent of the population believe they have a food intolerance1, and many people struggle with their symptoms for as long as five years before investigating the cause2.
And then there are food allergies, most commonly triggered in Australia by eggs, cow’s milk, peanuts and tree nuts3. Food allergies now affect about 1 in 100 adults and 1 in 20 children, while the incidence of food-induced anaphylaxis (severe, life-threatening allergic reaction) has doubled in the past 10 years3.
But, despite the rise in both food allergies and intolerance, there is no known cure for either, and there is widespread public misunderstanding about how they are best diagnosed – and how to tell the difference between the two. Little wonder, given that the two conditions often share many symptoms.
"Food allergy symptoms usually start soon after eating the food; however, some symptoms, such as diarrhoea, can occur up to 48 to 72 hours after eating the food," explains Georgie Rist, Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
"Food intolerance reactions are threshold based, meaning you have to eat more than your body can handle to bring on symptoms. Food intolerances can be caused by chemicals found naturally in foods or by chemicals that are added to foods. These chemicals can slowly build up in the body until the individual dose threshold is reached, explaining why symptoms can often be delayed."
To further complicate matters, food intolerance is often linked or confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is characterised by abdominal pain, bloating and alternating constipation and diarrhoea. IBS is thought to be triggered by diet, changes in routine, infection and stress.
Rist explains that there are several options to explore when it comes to diagnosing food intolerance, including elimination diets, clinical tests like the hydrogen breath test and food challenges such as the FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols), which involves reducing your food intake to a basic diet for a few weeks and then observing the body's reaction as you gradually re-introduce specific foods.
Food allergy is most commonly diagnosed by a skin prick test, where tiny amounts of the allergen are introduced under the skin and the body's reaction observed. This test must be carried out by an allergy specialist (via a referral from your GP).
In most cases of food allergy and intolerance, the solution is either total or partial removal of the food from the diet, depending on the severity of the reactions and their impact on health and quality of life.
Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.