Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
about food intolerance

What is food intolerance?

Food intolerance refers to a difficulty in digesting certain foods, which results in certain non-life-threatening discomforts such as bloatedness, diarrhoea, headaches, irritable bowels, runny nose, to mention a few. Foods most commonly associated with food intolerance include dairy products, eggs and grains that contain gluten. It is important to note that food intolerance is different from food allergy, see below.

What is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?

An allergy causes a very specific immune system reaction in the body that can be observed and can be diagnosed by doctors using various tests. Food intolerance does not cause this type of reaction and cannot be tested for in the same way. This lack of a specific immune reaction and the inability to test "scientifically" has led some doctors to deny the existence of food intolerance. One of the big differences between food allergy and food intolerance is that allergic reactions can, for some people, lead to life-threatening reactions that if not treated speedily, can lead to death.

Whilst a food intolerance is unlikely to cause life-threatening reactions, it can cause reactions that lead to physical and mental health problems and greatly impair the quality of life. Symptoms of food intolerance tend to take longer to be identified than symptoms of allergies.

What causes food intolerance?

There is no one single cause but the three below are the most common:

  • Absence of an enzyme required to digest the particular food. This means that the particular person experiencing an intolerance to a specific food does not have enough of the enzyme that the body needs to breakdown that particular food
  • Presence of certain naturally occurring chemicals in some foods that do not agree with the person experiencing. For instance, the presence of caffeine in coffee and tea, some people respond negatively to this naturally occurring chemical.
  • Presence of certain food additives. Food processing over the years has developed a big number of additives that while they help with taste and processing for the food, are now found to cause health problems for some people. For instance, a significant number of children do not respond well to foods with artificial flavours and artificial colours. Which is why TrueEarthTM snacks were formulated with no artificial colourants or flavourants.

What is the effect on children of food intolerance that is not managed?

It is severe.

Most children are not matured enough to make sense of what is going on. Only their subconscious mind knows that when they eat certain foods, they will get a negative reaction and so all they can do is refuse to eat that food or, if the parents’ or caregiver’s reaction to their refusing to eat that food is also severe, the child may just eat that food for the sake of peace and suffer the consequences. This may result in significant emotional issues for the child and they will definitely not be a happy, thriving child and their ability to learn may be affected. They may also consequently not be receiving the nutrients that these foods they are intolerant to, are supposed to deliver, which may lead to malnutrition and learning difficulties.

So, parents, if children often avoid or refuse to eat certain foods, please try and investigate why. Keep a food diary and watch how they are after ingesting that food: are they happy, are they bloated, running tummy, withdrawn and sullen?

Why has my Doctor never mentioned food as a possible cause of my symptoms?

Most medical doctors are trained to look at symptoms and to treat them with medication. Rarely do they look for the underlying cause. So, if you present with stomach cramps, rash, migraine, diarrhoea, you are more likely to be given medication than be offered help with re-evaluating your diet. Unless you told the doctor that you have watched your symptoms and you are almost certain that there is a link to what you eat, a medical doctor is unlikely to make the link. So, watch yourself first before you consult so you can shape the direction of the discussion and treatment with your physician.

Where can I get tested for food allergies and food intolerance?

Your best bet is consulting with a Dietician or Nutritionist that specialises in food intolerances. It is important that you look up the Dietician / Nutritionist before booking the consultation and see if their areas of expertise include food intolerances. Otherwise you may spend your hard-earned cash on a consultation that will not be helpful to you.

At what age can symptoms occur?

They can occur at any age. They can also be short term problems or lifelong conditions. If not identified early on, then they can lead to more serious problems in later life. It is quite vital for parents of young children to watch their children’s reaction to the foods most associated with food intolerance, to ensure that foods that they are intolerant to are removed from their diet so that the children can enjoy food and get the nutrients they need to grow and learn.

What are the most common allergens?

In South African legislation, the following are listed as common allergens, which could cause either an intolerance or an allergy, depending on the person consuming these foods:
- Dairy products
- Wheat
- Gluten
- Egg
- Crustaceans & molluscs
- Fish
- Peanuts
- Soybeans
- Tree nuts
- Soy
- Celery
- Sesame seeds

What must you do when you suspect food intolerance?

Try and keep a food diary and note how you feel after consuming certain foods. Then you can consult your doctor and be specific about your observations. To the extent possible, you could a Dietician or Nutritionist, making sure you check if their areas of specialisation include food intolerance.

Is there a cure for food intolerances?

In most cases the cure is to avoid the offending food or, in the case of certain food chemicals, to reduce the amount of foods eaten that are high in the chemical. There is no drug treatment available that will cure food intolerance. If you have difficulty avoiding problem foods, then a doctor may be able to prescribe some treatment to help you deal with the symptoms, but that is not ideal. The best solution is to simply remove that food from your or your child’s diet or replace it with a safer alternative. For instance, switching to gluten-free foods if wheat or gluten containing foods are an issue.

Is there a self-test for food intolerances?

Not entirely. However, you can try the elimination diet where you eliminate the suspect food(s) from your diet and gradually reintroduce them. Also keep a food diary making careful notes about what you eat and the resulting symptoms. This can point your doctor in the right direction and help you answer vital questions during your examination. Remember, this is not enough to diagnose yourself. You still need professional help.

Independent Resources

We have identified the following few links to assist you should you need more specific information:

What should you do if you suspect you might have a food allergy?

Food allergy vs. food intolerance: What's the difference?