Food intolerance is a medical condition that has come to the forefront in the last few years.  Originally thought to be a “phantom” disorder, it is beginning to garner serious attention from health professionals and the food industry alike.

Differences between food allergy and food intolerance

A food allergy is a systemic response to certain foods generated by the immune system that can be life threatening.  Up to 4% of American adults suffer from food allergies with the most common allergens being peanuts, shellfish (like shrimp, lobster and crab), milk and eggs.

Some symptoms of food allergy:

  • Itching or swelling of the mouth or throat
  • Skin rash
  • Hives
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Chest pain

Millions more Americans are afflicted with food intolerance, which is a response to some foods and beverages NOT generated by the immune system and NOT life threatening.  Symptoms can be triggered by a chemical reaction to preservatives or other compounds in foods, or they can be a result of low enzyme levels which inhibit digestion of certain foods – most commonly wheat and dairy.

Some symptoms of food intolerance:

  • Gas/Bloating
  • Stomach cramps
  • Heartburn
  • Headache/migraine
  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Malaise

Typically, symptoms of food allergy are immediate, and they occur every time the food is eaten.  Effects of food intolerance are more gradual and may only occur when a certain amount of the food is eaten.  This amount (or threshold) varies from person to person.

Causes for growing food intolerance

GMO Foods:  Experts believe that part of growing food intolerance in the United States can be attributed to food engineering or modification which has raised the amount of gluten in wheat from roughly 4% to about 14%.

Processed Foods:  The typical American diet also contains a whopping amount of processed foods - packed with artificial preservatives and chemicals that can trigger reactions in certain people with repeated exposure.

Here are some suggestions if food intolerance is a concern:

  • Keep a detailed food diary for two weeks that includes foods, portion sizes and any symptoms you may develop for evaluation by a registered dietician.
  •  Make substitutions.
  • Gluten-free substitutes:  Choose gluten-free breads, rolls and bagels – there are a number on the market.  Purchase quinoa in place of wheat-based pasta and corn tortillas instead of the flour variety.  Gluten-free cereals can be harder to find, but Rice and Corn Chex are a good option.  For snacking, try popcorn, rice cakes or rice crackers.  Make sure products read “gluten-free” or check labels (some products contain modified food starch – which contains gluten).
  • Non-dairy substitutes:  Replace dairy milk with soy, almond, rice or coconut milk.  Also there are a number of dairy-free cheeses and coffee creamers on the market and soy-based margarines.
  • Remove processed foods from your diet, and evaluate how you feel.
  • Try an elimination diet.  Remove suspect foods from your diet for several weeks. If symptoms go away, then one of these foods is most likely the problem.  One at a time, reintroduce each food back into the diet to determine if symptoms reoccur.
  • Give supplements a try.  Probiotics can help restore balance of healthy bacteria in the gut, fish oil can lower inflammation associated with food intolerance, and enzymes can be helpful in the breakdown of foods for better digestion.

While food intolerance is a growing problem, symptoms can also be attributed to other conditions.  It is important to consult with a health care professional if there is a concern.