What is food intolerance?
Food intolerance has a new medical name: non-allergic food hypersensitivity. This includes a variety of adverse reactions to many different foods or ingredients. Symptoms seem to be worse if larger quantities are consumed. There is often a time delay - of up to 72 hours - so it is often difficult to figure out what foods are triggering symptoms.
The reaction is not the same as food allergy, because it doesn't involve the immune system. It should not be confused with food poisoning either, which is caused by toxic substances that would cause symptoms in anyone who ate the food.
Food intolerance occurs when the body is unable to deal with a certain type of food. This sometimes happens because the body doesn't produce enough of the particular chemical or enzyme that is needed for digestion of that particular foodstuff. Problems may also occur if a component of the food that is not fully digested gets into the blood stream. There are also a number of substances naturally found in our diet that can trigger symptoms. An example is vasoamines, which are found in foods including cheese and chocolate. In addition, some foods, such as shellfish and strawberries can trigger symptoms similar to a true food allergy.
One common culprit is cow's milk, which contains a type of sugar called lactose. Sometimes people have a shortage of the enzyme lactase, which is normally made by cells lining the small intestine. Without this enzyme they can’t break down milk sugar into simpler forms that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Lactose intolerance can cause symptoms very similar to irritable bowel syndrome in adults and colic in babies.
Numerous symptoms of food intolerance have been reported, ranging from migraine to eczema to concentration issues. Symptoms are varied and can include some of the ones in the list below. However, be aware that some of these symptoms can be caused by other things and if you have any concerns you should consult your GP or paediatrician.
- deep-sunk eyes or dark areas around the eyes
- rashes around the mouth or burning in the mouth
- abdominal pain - often shown in a young child or baby who sleeps on their tummy or curled up in a ball
- irregular bowel movements or foul-smelling stools
- linear creases under the eyelids or 'crow's feet'
- bright red ears
- bright red cheeks
- constant rubbing of nose or facial grimacing because the nose, eyes and ears are so itchy
- a fixation on a certain food may also indicate a sensitivity to it
Currently, although research is being carried out in this area, there are no tests available to identify food intolerance correctly: many five false positives, which could encourage a parent to place a child on an unnecessarily restrictive diet. If you think your child might be intolerant of a food, it's best to avoid the food for a few weeks, then reintroduce it and see if the symptoms reappear.
However, if your child has a handful of the above signs and you are concerned about his development, or you are considering eliminating any foods from his diet, he might benefit from pursuing formal evaluation through a GP, paediatrician or dietician.