Allergy Terms: Clearing Up The Confusion

October 05, 2017

There are various words you hear discussed when it comes to individual reactions to foods. SupermarketGuru is here to set the record straight

There are various words that you hear discussed when it comes to individual reactions to foods. Whether people are avoiding an ingredient because it makes them tired, break out in a rash, have an upset stomach - or just makes them feel better overall not to eat it, SupermarketGuru would bet that the words allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity were used to describe the condition. It is important to understand what each of these words actually mean and the repercussions of using them out of context.

Food Sensitivities
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 food intolerances which, unlike allergies, do not involve the immune system - but are often more difficult to diagnose.

Symptoms can include: vomiting, diarrhea, eczema, hives, skin rashes, wheezing and a runny nose - all of which are usually classified as allergic reactions. Food intolerance reactions usually manifest as fatigue, gas, bloating, mood swings, nervousness, migraines or eating disorders - symptoms often less commonly associated with food. Symptoms of food sensitivity are not always immediate and can actually occur up to two days after consuming the offending food.

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. Notice how gluten does not make the list? More on that below.

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 particular 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. Thirty to 50 million Americans are estimated to be lactose intolerant - including 25 percent of all American adults. Lactose is certainly not the only ‘food ingredient’ that is related to an intolerance, as previously mentioned intolerances and sensitivities are often hard to diagnose because the reaction is not always immediate nor obvious. It is essential that you speak with your physician about any food concerns.

The Gluten Issue: Celiac Disease, an auto-immune disorder, also known as Celiac Sprue, is an autoimmune intestinal disorder (not an allergy!) that involves an immune mediated toxic reaction to gluten, which damages the tiny, hair-like projections -villi- in the small intestine. Damaged villi thus cannot take in nutrients from food. Gluten, the common name for specific proteins in cereal grains, is extremely harmful to people with the disease.

Gluten proteins exist in all forms of wheat: faro, durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, and einkorn, and all related grains: barley and rye. When people with CD experience repeated exposure to gluten, they face an increased risk of both nutritional and immune related disorders, like anemia, osteoporosis, GI cancers, and nervous system disorders. The disease affects all people differently, making it difficult to diagnose. Some typical symptoms include gas, chronic diarrhea, constipation, depression, weight loss or gain, fatigue, joint pain, bloating, muscle cramps and most commonly, irritability in children.

Celiac Disease affects one in 133 Americans. Celiac Disease is extremely under diagnosed; The University of Chicago’s Celiac Disease Center reports that approximately 3 million Americans are living with CD, 97 percent are undiagnosed. There is no cure for Celiac Disease; the only known treatment is adherence to a gluten-free diet.

Trouble when eating out? You need our FREE Food Allergy Buddy and Celiac BFF card- it’s simple to fill out and will save you confusion and frustration when eating out.

University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center
The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network