Allergy, Intolerance, Sensitivity: What’s The Difference?

November 17, 2014

To kick off SupermarketGuru’s Food Allergy Week, we’re going to discuss the different terms when it comes to food reactions. Allergies, intolerances, sensitivities, what’s the difference? Find out here.

To kick off SupermarketGuru’s Food Allergy Week, we’re going to discuss the different terms when it comes to food reactions. Food reactions -allergies, intolerances, sensitivities, etc. - can get confusing and complicated. Whether someone is avoiding an ingredient because it makes them tired, break out in a rash, have GI issues - or just makes them feel better overall not to eat it, it is important to understand what each of these words actually mean and the repercussions of using them out of context. Here’s what you need to know.

An increasing amount of research has revealed that food sensitivities are more common and have a wider, more varied impact on our health than previously understood. In general, food sensitivities are the result of a toxic response to food and are most commonly equated with food allergies, but also include other adverse food reactions which, unlike allergies, do not involve the immune system. Because of this food sensitivities are often more difficult to diagnose.

Symptoms usually manifest as: fatigue, gas, bloating, mood swings, nervousness, migraines, insomnia, and more - symptoms often less commonly associated with food. Symptoms of food sensitivity are not always immediate and can occur up to two days after consuming the offending food.

Clinical research is finding more and more evidence that the sensitivity to food can also increase the severity of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and other diseases traditionally not considered food related. The variety of reactions that can occur, and the possible delayed reaction, make diagnosing food sensitivities complex and confusing, as well as difficult to study.

Food allergy occurs when the immune system attacks a food protein. Ingestion of the offending food triggers the immune system because the body believes the food is toxic and potentially harmful. Histamine is released in response to the invader, signaling other cells to come to the site to destroy the offending molecule. The release of histamine causes a variety of symptoms that can range from mild hives to severe wheezing, or even anaphylaxis, which can potentially be fatal. It is estimated that approximately 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies (FAAN). The eight most common food allergens are: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy.

It is also important to note that over 60 percent of the body’s immune system is housed in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, thus constantly consuming foods you may be allergic to causes constant inflammation and upset in an area that should be kept calm so it can remain robust for true immune invaders.

One of the most common intolerances is lactose intolerance. Lactose is a sugar found in milk and milk products; when milk is metabolized normally in the human body, the enzyme lactase breaks down lactose into the simple sugars glucose and galactose, which are then processed by the body. A person who is lactose intolerant produces little or no lactase. Thus the intact lactose molecule passes through the GI tract resulting in various symptoms, including bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and flatulence. Symptoms can occur anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours after consuming milk products and will usually subside once the body has passed the lactose containing foods.

Look for “hidden” allergen sources. Be careful of cross-contamination, this can happen in a toaster, griddle, oven, fryer, shared plates and more. Many vitamins and medications can contain allergens in their additives – always check with your doctor and pharmacist to make sure they prescribe those that are safe. Some flavored coffees, teas, and other beverages may contain a cereal protein, which contains gluten. Always read ingredient labels!

Check out SupermarketGuru’s updated FREE Food Allergy Buddy Card. Effective and painless communication is here! Now you can help ensure that you and your family feel comfortable eating allergy free, in restaurants, at friend’s homes, in schools and even supermarkets! Personalize your free Food Allergy Buddy card here.