The big question: are food intolerances really a thing?
Nothing irritates a coeliac quite like saying you’re “a bit allergic”. Dietitian Laura Tilt gets the facts
We asked a dietitian for her take on the allergy-versus-intolerance debate
AAttend a dinner party and I guarantee that at least one person will be unable to eat at least one thing on the table. One in three Aussies avoid gluten, dairy or meat, according to CSIRO figures. Meatfree diets aside, does this mean that food sensitivities are on the rise, or are we just much more symptom-aware?
First, intolerances and allergies are very different things. An allergic reaction happens when your immune system mistakenly reacts to a food protein, triggering symptoms such as a rash, wheezing, swelling or itching. Not fun. Food allergies affect about 1 to 2 per cent of adults and range from mild to lifethreatening. We all know about coeliac disease – an allergy to gluten – while allergies to peanuts, fish and shellfish are also super common and tend to be diagnosed by skinprick and blood tests.
But it gets murkier when it comes to food intolerances. They don’t involve the immune system and they aren’t usually life-threatening, but because ‘intolerance’ is an umbrella term for a whole host of symptoms, from bloating to loose bowel movements and headaches, it’s difficult to define. And as many of these symptoms overlap with IBS and appear several hours after eating, it can be hard to identify the source.
So what causes an intolerance? Good question! While we don’t know exactly, it’s thought it can be triggered by a lack of the enzymes needed to break down food, as well as a reaction to certain additives and chemicals. Sulphites (preservatives found in dried fruits and wine), for instance, have been linked with eczema, itching and wheezing. Other food chemicals and additives (such as histamine and MSG) can also trigger gut symptoms, hives and headaches. So, if pinot or pad thai brings you out in a rash, an intolerance could be to blame (could, because diagnosing an intolerance isn’t easy). Lactose and fructose aside, there aren’t any tests that give accurate results. As for gluten, while ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’ has been described in scientific papers, it’s not yet widely accepted and there’s no way to test for it. Often it’s not gluten but shortchain sugars, FODMAPS, that are actually to blame.
Experiencing tricky symptoms? See your GP to rule out obvious causes (such as IBS), then think about seeking pro advice from a dietitian so that, if you do cut out any food groups, you don’t miss any key nutrients. WH