Understanding the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance

It’s common to have a physical reaction to some foods, but this doesn’t always mean that it’s a food allergy. It can just be a food intolerance. We explain the difference between the two.

Food sensitivity among South Africans is increasing, with more children showing levels of food allergies early on.

Preliminary data from a study conducted by the South African Food Sensitisation and Food Allergy (SAFFA), shows that there is a 2.5% true allergy rate in children aged one to three. This translates to 50 000 children with a food allergy in this age group alone.

ALSO SEE: Everything you need to know about food allergies and weaning

However, it’s important to know that there is a difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance.

A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body, which can cause a range of symptoms, according to Dr James Li, chair of the Division of Allergic Diseases in the Department of Internal Medicine and a board-certified asthma and allergy specialist at the Mayo Clinic. In some cases, a reaction to a food allergy can be severe and even life threatening. A food intolerance, on the other hand, is less serious and often limited to digestive problems.

People with a food intolerance can often still eat those foods in small amounts without any trouble, or even prevent a reaction. If you have a food allergy – eating any foods that affect you – can cause a life-threatening reaction, called anaphylaxis.

Symptoms of a food allergy:

  • Breathing problems
  • Throat tightness
  • Hoarseness
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Hives
  • Swelling
  • A drop in blood pressure
  • Itchy skin.

ALSO SEE: How to recognise if your child has a food allergy

 Symptoms of a food intolerance

  • Nausea
  • Gas
  • Cramps
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Irritability
  • Nervousness

 WebMD offers the following advice to tell the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance:

 A food allergy:

  • Is usually a sudden reaction
  • Can be triggered a small amount of food
  • Can occur every time you eat a certain food.

A food intolerance:

  • Is usually a gradual reaction
  • May only happen when you eat a lot of a certain type of food, or if you eat the food often.

Common food allergens

Peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, nuts, eggs, soy and wheat cause about 90% of food allergies, according to WebMD. Interestingly, the SAFFA study found that egg was the most common allergen, followed by peanuts, cow’s milk and fish.

Common food intolerances

The most common childhood food intolerance is lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance occurs when your body’s unable to break down the sugar in the milk. This may be due to an insufficient lactase enzyme.

Click here for a lactose-intolerant food substitution list

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