A guide to food allergies and intolerance

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What is a Food Allergy?

We all know that food allergies exist, as some people can have an adverse reaction to something they ate, from nuts, to seafood, to dairy products. However, it isn’t hard to jump to the conclusion that you MUST be allergic to something if you had an unpleasant reaction to it. However, you may not be allergic, you may simply have a food intolerance. 

Understanding the difference between an allergy and an intolerance is something that most do not know, however, it is key, especially if you work with food, or suspect that you may have an intolerance or allergy to a common food product. 

Today we will discuss with you the difference between food allergies and intolerances, and inform you of the most common ones, some of them might surprise you. 

Food allergies are caused by the immune system, it reacts to food when it doesn’t need to. Food allergy symptoms usually include; coughing, a dry itchy throat and tongue, wheezing or breathlessness, a runny nose and itchy eyes, flushing of the skin, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, a rash, swelling around the face, changes in the heart rate, and feeling bloated.  

What is Food Intolerance?

A food intolerance is different to a food allergy, as in a food allergy your immune system reacts to food when it doesn’t need to. But, a food intolerance usually happens when you have an issue with digesting the food. Consider someone who is intolerant to spicy food, their immune system and body is not giving them an adverse reaction, instead they may just be best friends with the toilet for a few days afterward. 

Another example is milk, one might be allergic to milk if it gives them an adverse reaction, however an intolerance to milk is what we know as lactose intolerance, when you cannot digest milk properly, and it gives you stomach upsets. 

Symptoms of a food intolerance can include stomach pain, nausea or diarrhea, wind or bloating, headaches, a skin rash, and wheezing. A food intolerance is not necessarily as bad as an allergic reaction. An intolerance can make you unwell, but an allergy can be more dangerous. 

What are the main food allergens?

There are 14 main allergens acknowledged in the catering industry, these are food types that people in restaurants, cafés, and food hygiene are aware of and are cautious with when cooking. It is possible to have a reaction to other things not on this list. These are just the most common and have been identified as the most potent and prevalent allergens. 

Celery, cereal containing gluten (barley and oats), crustaceans (i.e. prawns, crabs, lobsters), eggs, fish, milk, mollusks (mussels and oysters etc.), mustard, peanuts, sesame, soybeans, sulfur dioxide, sulfates, and tree nuts (including but not limited to almond, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, and macadamia nuts).

Testing for food allergies

If you believe you may have a food allergy, it is always best to consult your doctor. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference, whether you have a food allergy or if you are just intolerant of a food type. This is when your doctor will send you for food allergy tests. You will likely be referred to an allergy clinic or specialist for the tests. Depending on your situation the tests that will be required may vary, depending on what the allergy is, if the symptoms happened quickly and suddenly, you will probably be required to do a skin-prick test, or a blood test. 

However, if the symptoms develop more slowly and steadily, you will probably be put on a food elimination diet instead.  

During a skin prick allergy test, drops of standardized extracts of food will be placed on your skin, the skin is then pierced with a small lancet which will allow the allergen to contact the cells of your immune system. If itching, redness, and swelling occurs then this connotes a positive reaction, and you are allergic to the food. The test is usually painless, too. 

You may be concerned about having a reaction, as skin-prick tests do have a small chance of causing anaphylaxis, but the test will be done where there are facilities readily available to deal with this in the event it happens, so you will be safe. 

‘May contain’

We often see warnings on foods stating they ‘may contain’ an allergen. It is important to remember that these are there not because the food DOES contain it, but rather that the food was made in a facility with the allergen, so there is a chance of cross contamination.