Ask the Dietitian - Food Allergy or Intolerance ... What's the Difference?
Does your child have a sensitive stomach? Perhaps he or she gets fussy or gassy after mealtime? As a parent, it's extremely difficult to see your child suffering, but it's also difficult to figure out what may be wrong with your little one. I often receive questions from parents about whether their child has a true food allergy, or if he or she has developed a food intolerance. Both can have similar symptoms, but are quite different...
A food allergy should not be confused with the more general term “food intolerance.” Food allergies happen when a person’s immune system reacts to the proteins in the food being eaten. With a food allergy, the immune system produces antibodies to the protein in the food.
The antibodies cause certain cells in the body to release histamines into the bloodstream. Histamine acts on a person’s skin, nose, eyes, throat, and/or GI tract causing allergic symptoms such as a rash, itchy eyes, runny nose and/or diarrhea. This is why antihistamines are usually recommended for allergies to grasses, pollen, cat dander and other allergy causing protein containing items in the environment.
Allergy symptoms can occur in minutes or in hours and the severity of the allergic reaction is not possible to predict. Some people may have only a rash develop upon eating a specific food and others can have a life-threatening anaphylactic (difficulty breathing) reaction and require immediate medical treatment with epinephrine after consuming or even touching this same food.
Food intolerances are non-immunological reactions but may cause some similar symptoms as a food allergy. Examples of food intolerances are:
- An enzyme deficiency such as lactase deficiency preventing the breakdown of the milk sugar called lactose causing lactose intolerance
- A reaction to a naturally occurring chemical in the food such as caffeine in coffee or tyramine in aged cheeses
- A reaction to a chemical added to the food such as artificial flavors, artificial colors, or preservatives
- Processing chemicals such as chemicals like hexane used to extract certain nutrients. These are not required to be declared on a label’s ingredient panel but can still be in the product
When infant’s are weaned to or fed a dairy-based formula, sometimes symptoms may arise that resemble an allergy. When a true cow’s milk protein allergy exists, an infant or child will not be able to consume any dairy products and may also have an allergy to goat’s milk proteins or soy proteins. In the case of an intolerance rather than an allergy to dairy products, the child may only need lactose-reduced or lactose-free products such as Baby’s Only® Organic Sensitive DHA/ARA Formula, Baby’s Only® Organic Plant Based Pea Protein Toddler Formula or PediaSmart®.
Food restrictions are usually less cumbersome in the case of a food intolerance when compared to the restrictions required in food allergies. Also, food intolerances can sometimes be short term situations such as occur after a diarrheal illness like the flu which temporarily disrupts the body’s ability to make the enzyme lactase.
When symptoms of a food allergy or food intolerance arise, check with your child’s healthcare provider to determine if a food allergy truly exists; what aspects of a food could be causing the symptoms; what foods, if any, to avoid; and how long to avoid the offending foods.
**For specific medical care and nutritional advice on product usage, please see your healthcare professional