Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerance

One in three Americans believes that either they or a close family member has food allergies. But medical reports indicate that only five percent of children, and between one and two percent of adults suffer from true food allergies.

What many people believe to be a food allergy is more properly diagnosed as food intolerance (lactose intolerance is common). The distinction between the two requires a medical diagnosis.

A true food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakes something we eat as a threat, and reacts accordingly. An allergic reaction may occur within a few minutes of ingesting an allergen, or take as long as an hour to develop. Most reactions are mild, as with a rash or hives, but a severe reaction can cause anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening condition in which the lungs constrict, restricting breathing. Experts estimate that 125 Americans die every year from food allergies.

Food Allergens

Anything we eat has the potential to be an allergen, but some products are more likely to cause allergies than others. Ninety percent of all food allergies can be attributed to milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, soy products, peanuts and tree nuts (i.e., walnuts). Of these, peanut allergies are most likely to result in anaphylaxis.

Children are more likely to suffer from milk, egg and peanut allergies, than other food allergies. Children can also sometimes outgrow allergies, compared to adults, who rarely lose their sensitivity to an allergen once it develops.

Symptoms: Itching, Hives and More

Allergy symptoms differ from person to person. Hives, itching, and skin rash are common responses, as are wheezing, nasal congestion and respiratory difficulties. Some may experience swelling of the lips, tongue, throat or face (angioedema). These are the reactions most people recognize when they think of allergies.

Occasionally, allergens can affect the gastrointestinal tract, particularly in young children. Vomiting, nausea and diarrhea are possible indications of an allergic reaction, especially if they are accompanied by a skin rash or respiratory problems.

Celiac Disease: Gluten Intolerance

Celiac disease, also called Celiac sprue, is a hereditary disorder that involves an adverse reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, oats, rye and barley. People with Celiac disease lose proper function of the small intestine as a result of their immune system’s response to gluten and suffer frommalabsorption, or a decreased ability to digest essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Normally, a gluten-free diet will restore the function of the intestine.

Celiac disease is often mistaken for a wheat allergy.

Hidden Dangers for Someone with a Food Allergy

In the high-tech world of processed food, avoiding allergens is a challenge. Soybeans and soy products, for instance, are present in many processed foods, as are egg whites, wheat, and peanuts. Here are just a few places where undetected allergens can crop up:

Eggs: Egg whites are often used in the foamy topping of specialty coffees, where most people wouldn’t think to look for them. Egg pasta is, of course, an obvious danger, but who’d think that many commercial egg substitutes include egg whites?

Fish and Seafood: Watch out for Caesar salad dressing and Worcestershire sauce: Both can contain anchovies. Imitation crab is usually made from fish products. And avoid both seafood restaurants and fish markets: People have suffered reactions just from airborne fish proteins.

Milk: Milk includes all dairy products. Casein, the main protein found in milk, is present in many processed foods.

Peanuts: “May Contain Peanuts” is a common candy warning. Most chocolate candies have possibly come into contact with peanuts or other nuts. Many ethnic restaurants, including Chinese, African and Thai, use peanuts in cooking. Some hypersensitive individuals may react to the scent of peanuts, particularly in closed spaces such as airplanes.

Soy Products: Soybeans are common ingredients in Oriental cooking, and as noted above, soy products are used extensively in processed food.

Tree Nuts: People with nut allergies are usually diligent about checking ingredients, but the danger isn’t just in food. Foot bags (such as hacky sacks), beanbags and some stuffed toys are sometimes filled with crushed nutshells.

Wheat: Wheat can be found in some imitation crab products. While people with a wheat allergy should avoid ingesting wheat-containing products, they are also sensitive to inhaling traces of wheat flour in the air-so avoid your local bakery. Also watch for “country-style” decorations, where wheat is woven into wreaths, dolls and other items-inhaling airborne particles can aggravate a wheat allergy.

What’s for Breakfast?

Whole-wheat toast with butter and coffee with cream? A bowl of cereal with milk? Not if you have a wheat or milk allergy! Rice is generally well tolerated by those with a wheat allergy. And remember: Many other options to fulfill your daily calcium requirements are available.

Cross Reactivity

Often, an allergic reaction to one item indicates a probable reaction to other foods. This is called cross reactivity. People who develop allergies to crab, for instance, often turn out to be allergic to other forms of shellfish, as well. An allergic response to peanuts is often an indication of other nut allergies. Some types of cross reactivity, called oral allergy syndrome, are not even food-related. People who react to birch tree pollen, for instance, are often allergic to apple peels.

Psychological Causes

Some people react adversely to food at a psychological level. Any trigger associated with traumatic or unpleasant memories, for instance, may cause someone to respond with physical symptoms. Once a person believes he or she has a food allergy, the mind may produce allergy-like symptoms whenever the person comes into contact with it.

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