What's A Food Allergy?

Food allergies.  They're high on the list of confusing health issues.  What’s often labeled a “food allergy,” is really an ”intolerance.”  What’s the difference?  Let’s take a look.

A food allergy involves the immune system.  It is a reaction to a substance in the food – often a protein – that the body sees as harmful, and that sets off a protective mechanism to rid the body of the invader.  That reaction comes with symptoms that can be mild or life threatening: they include runny nose, rash, blotchy skin, shortness of breath, and sometmes death.

Though there are over 170 foods known to cause allergies, eight foods account for 90 percent of the reactions.  Eggs, milk, peanuts, soy and wheat are among them.  Peanut allergies are especially prone to misconceptions.  When it comes to kids,  conventional wisdom has been to avoid feeding potentially allergic foods to prevent food allergies.  However, a large study of children 4 to 11 months old showed that early introduction of a peanut-containing snack prevented the development of peanut allergy.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has additional information for parents about food allergy reactions.

An intolerance, on the other hand, involves the digestive system.  It’s caused by the inability of the digestive tract to handle a component of food.  Lactose, for example, is one of the natural sugars found in milk and, for some people, creates problems like gas, belching, bloating and diarrhea.  In this case the small intestine is not producing adequate amounts of lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose.  Though the symptoms of an intolerance are uncomfortable, they are not life-threatening.

Food poisoning has some similar gastrointestinal symptoms (like diarrhea), to a food allergy or intolerance.  However, bacteria or toxins in a food item cause food contamination.  Contamination comes from a variety of sources as the food is produced or prepared.  One in 6 Americans get sick from contaminated food or beverages, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  Foodborne illness can be deadly, and should not be taken lightly.  

Approximately 1 in 20 children and 1 in 25 adults have food allergies, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.  So it's important to know how to identify and manage them.

If you have, or suspect you have a food allergy or intolerance there are several things you can do:

  1. Read food labels.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has great information on this.
  2. Consult with a medical doctor/allergist to determine if the symptoms are a true allergy and/or if further testing is needed. Click to find an allergist in your local area.
  3. Meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist to find out which foods are safe for you to eat, and how to avoid items that may cause a reaction.  Click to find one in your local area.