Intolerances and Allergies: understanding the differences

Photo by Lidye on Unsplash

The food-hypersensitive consumer includes people who have food allergies, food intolerances and coeliac disease – which have all seen a significant increase in cases over the last few years.

An allergic reaction occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to a particular substance (allergen) as if it’s harmful. Food allergens are generally harmless to most people, but when a person develops a food allergy the body reacts. Reactions can vary from mild – such as a rash, stomach-ache, and vomiting – to more severe reactions such as swelling of the throat and mouth, or an anaphylactic reaction which requires immediate attention. Allergic reactions happen immediately after eating, drinking or, for some sufferers, even simply touching the allergen.

A food intolerance, however, refers to a difficulty digesting certain foods and having an unpleasant physical reaction. Reactions can vary from mild, such as bloating or tummy ache, to more severe gastric cramps or vomiting that may last a couple of days. Contrary to an allergic reaction, an intolerance reaction usually happens a few hours after eating the food.

Coeliac disease is a severe intolerance caused by the immune system attacking and damaging the gut when food containing gluten is consumed. It is an autoimmune disorder primarily affecting the small intestine which can result in long-term health issues, such as the body not being able to absorb the nutrients and vitamins from the food. Like other food intolerances, reactions will occur soon after eating food containing gluten.

Food allergies can start at any age, and whilst children often grow out of allergies such as eggs and milk, some allergies can continue into adulthood. Conversely, allergic reactions can start unexpectedly as an adult. In any case, for an allergy sufferer is very important to eliminate any allergens completely from their diet. 

There is no medication to ‘cure’ food allergies, only to calm down symptoms; antihistamines for mild allergic reactions and AAI devices to stop anaphylactic reactions, which are serious and life-threatening. Once allergens have been identified, it is important to understand the severity of the reactions and plan meals that eliminate the relevant allergens completely from the diet. 

Sometimes children can be encouraged to tolerate certain allergens under strict medical supervision to build a resistance to the allergy; this is common with milk allergies and the process is known as the “The Milk Ladder Challenge”. This approach is taken because mild allergic reactions in childhood could become more severe in adulthood, so the idea is to try and treat it early.

Food intolerances are often misunderstood, with assumptions that food intolerances do not cause unpleasant reactions and sufferers being mistaken for ‘fussy eaters.’ Sometimes a food intolerance sufferer can slowly re-introduce the food in very small amounts to try to encourage the body to accept the food again. 

The food hypersensitive consumer is not a passing trend; the numbers are increasing, and the list of dietary requirements is becoming more complex.

If we understand the issues faced by this consumer group and listen to their needs, we will be in a much better position to provide suitable menus which are safe and varied enough for them to enjoy.