Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

What is the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance?

Food allergies and food intolerance are two distinctly different reactions often confused for the same thing. A food allergy induces an immune response while food intolerance is a chemical response and often less serious than a food allergy. Many people with food intolerance are able to tolerate a small amount of the offending food and their symptoms are often limited to digestive issues such as bloating, constipation or diarrhoea but can include headaches, difficulty breathing, skin sensitivity, sweating and heart palpitations which are symptoms similar to that of an allergy. An example of food intolerance is lactose intolerance, when the body does not produce sufficient amounts of the enzyme lactase in order to properly digest lactose found in dairy products. Though food intolerances may cause great discomfort, they are not considered fatal.

A true allergy includes similar symptoms to food intolerance but may also cause swelling, hives, itching and convulsions. The most severe symptom of a food allergy is anaphylaxis which can be fatal. Severe reactions to a food allergy can occur even if past reactions have only been mild. Any food can cause an allergic reaction and all allergies should be taken seriously.

The top ten most common food allergens

The following foods make up 90% of all food allergies.

  1. Peanuts
  2. Tree nuts
  3. Eggs
  4. Shellfish and Crustaceans
  5. Wheat
  6. Dairy
  7. Sesame
  8. Soy
  9. Lupin

How common are food allergies?

5% of children and 2% of adults in Australia live with food allergies. In the last 10 years the cases of anaphylaxis as a result of a food allergy doubled and now 1 in 10 babies will develop a food allergy.

The cause for the increase in food allergies is still unknown though some theories include increased levels of hygiene, with studies indicating that children who have less exposure to infections are at higher risk of developing allergies. Another theory is that not introducing high risk food allergens into the diet at an early age (within the first year) can increase the risk of developing a food allergy in infancy or childhood. There is some evidence to suggest that introducing peanuts into the diet for high risk infants between the ages of 4-11months can decrease the risk of developing the allergy by up to 80%.

To reduce the risk of the development of food allergies, the Telethon Institute for Kids in Perth WA, recommends eating high risk allergen foods while pregnant (unless you have an existing allergy) and to introduce a variety of solids, including foods commonly associated with allergies, while continuing to breastfeed at around the 6 month mark. It is not uncommon for children to outgrow their food allergies.

One of the most widespread misconceptions is that food allergies develop only in infancy or childhood but the reality is that a food allergy can develop at any age, even with foods you have previously been able to eat safely.

Reducing the risk of a reaction

Food labels

For people who suffer from food allergies it is always important to read food label packaging to help minimise the risk of an allergic reaction as cross contamination can occur in unexpected places. The Food Standards Code of Australia and New Zealand requires the top ten food allergens to be declared on labels whenever they are present as ingredients, including when allergens present as components of food additives or used as processing aids. Listing allergens outside of top 10 is not mandatory, nor is it mandatory to use “may contain” labelling for any allergen. Even if you purchase the same brand of a specific food product regularly, continue to check the labels as food manufacturers often change ingredients or processing techniques


Eating outside of the home

When eating out it is important that people living with allergies are not afraid to ask about food preparation methods and to inquire about ingredients that may have been used, even if the risk of an allergen being present is not obvious. This includes eating food prepared by friends or family.

Those working in the food industry have a duty to make sure they have knowledge of any food allergen risks present in the food they are serving and that the risk of cross contaminations through the use of knives, cutting boards and incorrect storage methods are correctly managed. It is also the duty of those with food allergies to make their allergy known when eating outside of the home.

It is important that those living with food allergies take the correct precautions and those who are anaphylactic always have an Epipen available as it is impossible to guarantee that the food they are consuming is risk free.


Written by Katherine Ramsden, Nutritionist.

Nutrition Force is a Western Australian based company of Nutritionists and Accredited Practising Dietitians that offer weight loss programsprivate dietetic consultationschildren’s nutrition & dietetics,  school nutrition and  Corporate Wellness programs.  If you would like more information on our Perth Dietitians and the other services we offer call us today on (08) 9385 7755.

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We have clients travelling for over three hours to come and see us for a range of dietary and health related conditions.  We also receive referrals from over 150 GP’s and specialists throughout WA for those on health care plans and with more complicated health conditions.

Gastric conditions and diseases are our specialty and we consult with many clients who have suffered for years or decades and sometime their whole life with debilitating symptoms.  Migraines, persistent cough, skin conditions, nerve and pain sensitivity and many other symptoms can be related to diet and food chemicals.  Many of our clients experience relief from symptoms within two weeks following our advice.

However, we see a range of clients ranging in age from toddlers to people in their 90’s for all dietary related health conditions including bariatric surgery, children’s dietary issues, weight loss, diabetes and so much more.

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