In today's advanced world of science we've been able to grow our knowledge in what makes up our food. Many more people now pay attention to ingredients like gluten, caffeine and dairy. It wasn't always the case, but through good science, good food and good health, people seem to be paying closer attention to what goes in their bodies because they understand that certain ingredients can either be intolerable to them, or they are simply (and dangerously) allergic to them.
In the United States it is estimated that 70 million people have food intolerances and roughly 12 million have food allergies. The two are very different, and understanding what you have can literally save your life.
A food intolerance, sometimes called a food sensitivity, produces a much milder reaction than a food allergy. You may be intolerant to lactose, which is one of the most common food sensitivities people have, but it wouldn't be accurate to say you're allergic to milk unless drinking it causes you to go to the hospital instead of the bathroom.
Having a food intolerance means your body lacks one or more enzymes that breaks down that particular food substance, such as lactose, yeast, fructose, gluten, glucose or any number of food additives. If you ingest one of these substances and it doesn't get broken down before reaching the gastrointestinal tract, it can trigger one or more reactive symptoms - ranging from discomfort to rashes, diarrhea or vomiting.
Having a food allergy, however, means that your immune system gets involved in the process. It confuses whatever food substance you're allergic to for a toxin or parasite and sends out antibodies to fight it. This reaction then causes your body to release histamine, a neurotransmitter that produces inflammatory effects. If your body produces a lot of histamine it can actually lead to a medical emergency, such as a fatal case of anaphylaxis which causes low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and airway constriction. Anaphylaxis kills approximately 200 people every year in the United States.
Another difference between defining a food intolerance versus a food allergy is that doctors will consider what people ate in the last 48 hours when determining food sensitivity, but a food allergy will cause immediate symptoms, and almost always within two hours of consumption. Some of the most common foods people are allergic to are nuts, seafood, eggs, soy and wheat.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says food allergies are present in about 3.7 percent of U.S. adults and 6-8 percent of children under 4 years of age.
The best way to determine if you may have a food sensitivity is by conducting an elimination diet. Tracking your food intake is a major part of this study. If you suspect you are sensitive to a certain food or substance you can eliminate it from your diet, note if your reactions subside and then reintroduce the food after a specific time period to see if the reaction comes back. Some doctors believe you can combat certain food sensitivities through medication. For instance, some people take lactase tablets before eating dairy or antacids to quell heartburn or acid reflux caused by other foods. Others prefer to completely eliminate intake of any culprit foods.
If you believe you may be allergic to any food, it is always best to consult your physician instead of assuming it is a sensitivity. Of course, always take emergency action if you or a loved one is believed to have an allergic reaction to food.