Food Experts Explain What You Should Know About Food Allergies and Intolerances

May 15, 2015

If you experience unpleasant symptoms after eating one of your favorite dishes, do you know if it’s a food allergy or food intolerance?

The Georgia Department of Public Health’s (DPH) Worksite Wellness team called on nutrition and food experts Donna DeCaille, registered dietitian with Envision Nutrition, and Chef Lynn Ware from Custom Gourmet Solutions, to cut through the confusion surrounding food allergies and intolerances.

“An allergy is really an immune system reaction,” said DeCaille. “Most of the time, it is caused by the protein in the food. Your system recognizes the protein as harmful and releases antibodies. The next time you eat that same food, your body releases histamines and you have the severe reaction. That’s an allergy.”

To understand the differences between food allergies and food intolerances, you have to be aware of how your body reacts to the foods you ingest and how long it takes for that reaction to occur.

Food allergy symptoms are characterized by tingling of the mouth, swelling of tongue and throat, itchy skin, hives or skin redness, breathing difficulty, wheezing and abdominal cramps.

In some cases, reactions can be severe or even life-threatening including vomiting, faintness due to sudden drop in blood pressure, anaphylaxis, loss of consciousness or risk of death. The reaction usually begins immediately after ingesting the food.

Common symptoms of food intolerance may include nausea, stomach pain, cramps or bloating, heartburn, diarrhea and headaches. The reaction may take hours or days to appear, so it’s a bit harder to identify.

Some of the most popular food allergies are peanuts, milk, soy, nuts, eggs and wheat.  Adults with hay fever, a pollen allergy, or general seasonal allergies can be allergic  to raw fruits and vegetables due to the similar protein in pollen. Generally, you do not get the same reaction when they are cooked according to DeCaille.

“The major difference between allergies and food intolerance is with a food allergy you cannot eat even a little” said DeCaille. “With food intolerance, you probably can eat or tolerate a little bit of the food.”

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) advises that there is no cure for food allergies and that avoidance is the best solution. The organization recommends always examining food labels and ingredients to check for wheat, soy, eggs, milk and tree nuts.

Gluten, dairy and sugar-free diets might promise to improve weight loss, detox the body and relieve food allergy symptoms, but the only way to truly know if you have a food allergy is to pursue proper testing with a doctor.

“There has been a lot of interest in gluten-free and dairy-free diets the last several years,” said E. Susanne Koch, MS, ACSM-HFS, PES, worksite wellness coordinator at DPH. “It’s important to understand why it may be necessary to choose this type of diet restriction, which makes it so vital to inform your doctor of recurring symptoms you experience after eating certain foods. Hopefully after hearing from our food and nutrition experts employees can decipher the information and make the best choice for themselves.”

Children are better at letting you know when a food does not taste good or it makes them feel bad according to DeCaille and Denise Yeager, a Georgia mother who has a child with allergies.

“My son is allergic to artificial sweeteners” said Yeager. “When he eats foods with this ingredient, he gets horrible leg cramps at bedtime. My husband also has this same allergy.”

DeCaille’s advice is always be smart about your health.

“Epinephrine is the first line treatment for a severe allergic reaction, so always carry your EpiPen,” she said.

A certified master gardener, Chef Lynn hosted a live cooking demonstration to explore various food substitutions that can help consumers learn how to enjoy their favorite foods while avoiding their food allergy or intolerance triggers.

Chef Lynn introduced recipes with seltzer water, blueberries and mint to replace sugary drinks. She also served crunchy zucchini chips, flavored with Mrs. Dash’s seasoning in place of deep fried or baked potato chips which contain lots of salt.

“Different people have food restrictions they have to monitor,” said Chef Lynn. “If there are people with dairy or gluten restrictions, you can substitute foods that you used to eat. In my food demonstration I substitute spiralized squash or zucchini for the usual spaghetti pasta and other dishes if you are gluten-free.”

For pasta lovers looking to avoid traditional noodles and sauces, she served Mediterranean zucchini which was spiralized into a noodle and seasoned with lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and oregano. Chef Lynn also prepared spaghetti squash in lieu of regular pasta, by removing the seeds, and lightly sautéing the squash with spices and herbs from her garden.

Visit AAAAI online to learn helpful tips about living with food allergies and intolerances. You can also access The Virtual Allergist, a virtual allergy test that will give you helpful information about your food allergies that can be shared with your doctor. 

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