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Food Allergies & Intolerance - Why You Need to Know the Difference

June 28, 2012

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Last week, European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) reported that allergic reactions in children had increased 7-fold in the last decade. More than 17 million Europeans currently suffer from food allergies, with egg, cow’s milk, and nut allergies leading the pack.

In the United States, “an estimated 15 million Americans – including 1 in every 13 children - have at least one food allergy,” cites the Wall Street Journal. “Another three million have celiac disease…and millions more avoid gluten for other health reasons.”  

Moreover, this global spike in documented food allergies has been accompanied by an unregulated surge in claims of food intolerance, negative reactions to food that are slower-onset and less dangerous than true allergic reactions. The distinction may seem negligible for consumers, but it has major repercussions for the food service industry.

Food allergies or celiac disease require a complex series of procedures at restaurants, as they can be triggered by the slightest cross-contamination – frying gluten-free and gluten-containing ingredients in the same pan, for example. Food intolerances, on the other hand, are typically less volatile, requiring restaurants to simply remove or replace an undesired ingredient. With some establishments reporting special dietary needs at 20% of their tables (WSJ), the difference between intolerance and an allergy can have a major effect on restaurants’ business.

Yet this surge in “picky eaters” has some researchers, chefs and journalists wondering – how many of these sensitivities might be psychosomatic? Nicholas Lezard, a writer for the Guardian, compares mild food intolerances with the “fussy eating of childhood.” Even doctors who recognize possible long-term effects of food sensitivity recommend testing to distinguish between intolerances and allergies. As for the gluten-free movement, experts question whether it is the elimination of gluten, or the resulting increase in other healthful foods that causes the benefits praised by fans of the diet.

What has your experience with food intolerance and allergies been in your personal experience and your health coaching practice?