Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

Written by: Dr Sarah Weber

Food is supposed to help children grow up healthy and strong. But for a growing number of kids, something as innocuous as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, scrambled eggs, or a glass of milk can cause problems -- and this can be a major source of anxiety for parents.

While a growing number of children are diagnosed with food allergies, a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed the prevalence of food allergy might actually be overestimated. “While allergists in the United States would agree that food allergy issues seem to be increasing, most would also point out that much of what people consider ‘food allergy’ may instead be a food    intolerance or non-allergic issue.”1 A true food allergy requires a specific antibody to be produced by the immune system in response to specific proteins in a food.  If a food allergy is suspected, your allergist will collect a complete medical history and perform a physical exam of your child. An allergy skin test or even blood tests can help determine which foods caused a reaction in your child.  However, any positive food allergy test can be wrong as much as 90 percent of the time.1

Food intolerances on the other hand are negative reactions, often delayed, to either a food or a compound found in foods.  But contrary to allergies, food intolerances do not cause the immune system to produce antibodies against the offending substance.  Because there are no antibodies to test for, it is much more difficult to diagnose food intolerances than food allergies through traditional testing.  Additionally, the symptoms of food intolerances can often mimic those of food allergies.  Symptoms of food intolerances can include, but are not limited to the following: colic, constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, skin rashes, eczema, congestion, asthma, chronic colds, and chronic ear infections. These symptoms can occur with a few minutes of ingesting the offending food or up to several days later.

Thankfully, every body is genetically programmed by the nervous system, and the digestive system knows how to digest, absorb, and utilize the food we ingest.  Once the offending food is revealed, food intolerances can be easily managed and in many cases resolved; whereas foods that produce an immune response must be avoided completely.

If your child does have any of the above symptoms consistent with food intolerances, there are several ways to determine which food(s) is the cause of your child’s symptoms: 

  1. Keep a food log.  By recording what your child eats and when symptoms occur, you can look for common factors.
  2. Trial and error.  An elimination diet involves removing any suspect foods from your child’s diet until s/he is completely symptom-free.  You can then start reintroducing foods, one at a time to determine which foods cause the symptoms.  Seek the advice of a health care provider prior to an elimination diet to be sure your child is getting adequate nutrition.
  3. A Digestive Health Specialist can determine which foods a child is intolerant to. Once the food intolerance is confirmed, simple dietary changes and specific supplementation will eliminate the above symptoms and allow the body the healing it needs to get back in balance.  Take the stress out of planning your child’s meals now and in the future and find a practitioner here.


1American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

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Posted on May 09, 2012 at 8:49 PM