Is It A Food Allergy…Or Food Intolerance?

( — It’s all too common to hear a friend or family member shoo away food and claim they’re allergic to it. But the truth is, only about 4 percent of the population has food allergies – with African Americans and children leading the way with having the greatest risks of food allergy.

“People use the term ‘allergies’ very loosely to refer to anything they have a reaction to,” explains Dr. Laura Esswein, an allergist with Mercy Medical Group in St. Louis. ” While ‘allergy’ refers to a special type of response.”

Food intolerance and food allergies are often thought of as the same thing, used interchangeably, or mixed up with one another says Lisa Frazier, a clinical dietitian with Skaggs Regional Medical Center.

In recent years, medical researchers have reported an increase in people with both food allergies and food intolerance; however, it is important to note the clear differences between the two.

Food Allergy Vs. Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is the digestive system’s inability to process a certain food. For example, people who are lactose intolerant lack the enzyme that helps to properly digest a sugar found in milk called lactose. For people lacking this enzyme, the result of consuming dairy products is typicaly gas, diarrhea and bloating. Approximately 80 percent of African Americans and 10 percent of all Americans are lactose intolerant.

Other common food intolerances include wheat, dairy and additives such as MSG (monosodium glutamate) and sulphites.

A food allergy is an immune system response to a protein found in certain foods, causing allergic reactions in some people. In other words, your body mistakes the protein in the food as harmful – and attacks it. The allergic reaction can vary from hives, sneezing, wheezing, itching and abdominal pain, to more dangerous reactions, such as a drop in blood pressure and restricted airways. Serious allergies to food can be fatal.

According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, eggs, peanuts, dairy, shellfish, wheat, fish, tree nuts and soy account for 90 percent of all food allergies.

Conditions Not To Be Confused With Food Allergies Or Intolerance

Seasonal Allergies. People with seasonal allergies sometimes have sensitivity to certain foods that contain similar proteins as the seasonal allergens they’re actually allergic to. For example, people who are allergic to ragweed may also be sensitive to cucumbers, melon and zucchini. Those allergic to birch pollen may also be sensitive to carrots, peaches and apples. Typically, when these foods are cooked, no sensitivity occurs. This condition, known as oral allergy syndrome, usually only causes an itchy throat.

Food Poisoning. Sometimes, food poisoning symptoms can mimic food allergy symptoms. However, food poisoning occurs because of contaminated or improperly handled food.

IBS. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is also confused with food intolerance and food allergies. In people suffering from IBS, certain foods may cause diarrhea, abdominal pain and/or constipation.

The best way to determine just which condition is affecting you is to talk to your doctor and get a diagnosis.

Getting A Diagnosis

Your doctor will discuss and review your patient history, as well as administer a skin or blood test to help diagnose a potential food allergy.

If your doctor believes you have a food intolerance, they will advise you to follow a specific diet that gradually eliminates problem foods, then slowly reintroduce those foods to see if a reaction occurs.

Living With Food Allergies

So many prepared foods have ingredients that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be there…and many people like to cook with special ingredients. All of this can make eating with allergies and intolerance very difficult. This issue is particularly tricky when it comes to eating out, since cross contamination is common at buffets, fast food restaurants. Even some fancier restaurants aren’t off the hook. Unfortunately, the only true way to keep symptoms away is to know exactly what is in the food you eat and avoid the food that triggers those symptoms.

“If it’s truly an allergy, you cannot predict at what point it will worsen…and food allergies can be deadly. There are fatalities to food allergies every year,” says Esswein.