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What is Food Chemical Intolerance?

By March 23, 2018May 8th, 2023Education, Gut Health

Although food intolerances affect at least 3.7 million Australians, it can be a difficult concept to understand and is sometimes poorly understood by doctors as well. There is a lot of misinformation out there on food intolerances so make sure you are equipped with the facts. So what is food chemical intolerance? Is it different from an allergy? Below we’ve answered four of the most common questions asked about food intolerances so you can help assess if you’re impacted by certain food.

What is the difference between a food allergy and a food chemical intolerance?

It’s not rare to find that a food allergy and a food chemical intolerance have the same or similar symptoms. But a true food allergy can cause an immune system reaction and is often severe or life-threatening. Food intolerance is a lot less serious and often limited to digestive issues, headaches, breathing problems or just a general feeling of being unwell. With food intolerances, you can also eat some of the offending food occasionally without trouble and it’s a lot easier to prevent a reaction. Sometimes your reaction to food can be quite delayed whereas with an allergic reaction it is often immediate.

The delay can sometimes make food chemical intolerance harder to diagnose. You may not notice symptoms straight away, but hours or days after eating food. You may also be able to tolerate small amounts, but flare up with a ‘build-up’ of the offending food in your system.

What are the symptoms?

Food chemical intolerance can cause a wide variety of symptoms. More common symptoms include

  • bloating
  • diarrhoea
  • irritable bowel
  • cough
  • asthma
  • eczema
  • psoriasis
  • chronic headache
  • mood swings
  • stiff joints
  • arthritis
  • sneezing
  • infections
  • nausea
  • constipation
  • cramps
  • dermatitis
  • acne
  • significant weight loss or weight gain
  • tiredness
  • itchy skin

Australian food scientists have also made strong links between food intolerance and some behavioural issues we see in children.

What food can people have an intolerance to?

Food intolerance is a lower threshold for tolerating the chemicals (either natural or man-made) found in certain foods. The scale is different for everyone. It is something you may be genetically predisposed to, or it could be brought on by illness, hormones or medication.

The intolerance threshold may mean you react every time you eat a certain food or could be worse after repeated exposure. So you may be okay to eat a certain food one day, but after eating it twice in a row, you find you get side effects. This is where food intolerance significantly differs from a true allergy.

Your intolerance can be to one particular food or a group of foods.

It may be to man-made chemicals such as food enhancers, preservatives, colours, thickeners or flavouring. Or could be due to certain natural chemicals found in foods. These include lactose/dairy as well as salicylates, amines and glutamates as well as foods containing fermentable short-chain carbohydrates known as FODMAPs (Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols).

Any number of natural food chemicals may be present in varying amounts in fruits and vegetables – some have all, some are higher in one chemical than another and there are also foods which may be more ‘safe’ choices for food intolerance.

The Dietitian’s Association of Australia explains it well:

More than one type of chemical may cause symptoms so a person may react to many different types of foods. Some foods contain the same chemicals and a person can react after eating a variety of foods that contain the same chemical. This is because the chemical slowly builds up in the body until the dose threshold is reached. It also explains why the same food does not cause symptoms every time it is eaten.

 Food intolerances often run in families, suggesting a genetic predisposition. Sometimes food intolerance only affects a person after a sudden change in diet or after an illness.

Will food intolerances go away?

Food chemical intolerances aren’t always permanent and sometimes, all it takes is removing the food that is causing the problem for 6 months or more. Age, hormonal changes and reduced stress can also improve your tolerance level.

Defining which food chemicals you react to can be quite an involved process. But once identified and removed from the diet, symptoms of food reaction often disappear.

Key in this process is to swiftly find your individual tolerance level to food chemicals, especially natural ones. This ensures you can reintroduce the important nutrients those foods provide, whilst keeping their intake below your safe threshold.

This process is not one you should boldly go alone. Seeing an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) is the fastest and most controlled way of going through the process of discovering food intolerance by food elimination and challenge. Adopting a proven protocol for replacing nutrients is always strongly advisable, as a nutrient deficiency can also exacerbate food intolerance symptoms.

Think you have a food chemical intolerance or need help managing yours? Why not book a consultation with Tree of life Nutrition to stop the pain and irritation you are experiencing today!

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