Food allergy or food intolerance – what is the difference?

Around 1 in 20 children and 1 in 100 adults are currently living with a diagnosed food allergy. There is an even greater number of people living with food intolerances and sensitivities.

What’s the difference between a food allergy and an intolerance?

A food allergy is an immune response to a food, generally either immediately or within a few hours of being exposed to the food either from eating it, touching it or in severe cases even just being close to the food (known as an airborne allergy). An allergic response can range from mild symptoms such as itchiness, a rash and or swelling, or can quickly escalate to a life threatening anaphylactic response which is characterised by swelling of the tongue and throat, wheezing, difficulty breathing and a loss of consciousness requiring urgent medical attention.

Food intolerances are often confused with allergies, as the symptoms can be similar, but these are not caused by an immune response and are not life threatening. Food intolerances can still cause debilitating symptoms such as digestive upsets, bloating, headaches and migraines, hives, wheezing and coughing. Food intolerances can also be a potential trigger in children for behavioural issues such as excessive meltdowns and disrupted sleep.

A food intolerance is often a result of the body either not having the ability or enzymes required to break down components in foods, or a sensitivity to the chemicals found in foods.

Diagnosis of an allergy

Allergies are usually diagnosed by an allergist or immunologist using a skin prick test after a referral from a doctor, usually following a reaction. This may require the child’s carer to have an EpiPen with them at all times. The good news is, many children do grow out of their allergies.

Diagnosis of an intolerance

Food intolerances are often harder to diagnose than allergies and traditionally have been identified after following an elimination diet where suspected foods are completely removed for a period of time and then reintroduced to see if there is a reaction. A nutritionist or naturopath can offer other forms of testing to help identify food sensitivities without a restrictive elimination diet.

My child has been diagnosed with an allergy or intolerance… what now?

A good nutritionist or naturopath will work with you to ensure your child’s diet is balanced and their nutritional needs are being met. If, for instance, dairy has been eliminated from your child’s diet, it is important to ensure that calcium is sourced from other foods to avoid any long-term nutritional deficiencies.

Above all, it’s important to stay relaxed around food and mealtimes and try to keep the focus on what foods your child is able to enjoy. Establishing a positive relationship around food is essential, after all food is one of the joys of life.

Common food allergens in kids

  • Dairy
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts (cashews, almonds and walnuts)
  • Eggs
  • Soy
  • Sesame seeds
  • Wheat
  • Shellfish
  • Seafoods

Common food intolerances in kids

  • Lactose
  • Gluten
  • Salicylates
  • Amines
  • Sulphites
  • Fructose
  • Food colourings
  • MSG
  • Yeast

For further information on food allergies, head to allergy.org.au


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