Confused about the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance? Learn the difference between the two and some of their common food triggers.
What are food allergies and intolerances?
Most people are likely to know someone who has a food allergy or intolerance, but the terms can leave many people confused – particularly as they can share some of the same symptoms. The key to understanding them is to remember that although both are caused by the body reacting to a particular food – they are very different reactions:
- Baby food allergy: Your baby’s immune system reacts to a particular food which is usually harmless and mounts an abnormal immune response by releasing antibodies.
This causes a range of symptoms such as swelling of your baby’s face, lips or eyes, hives, stomach pain and vomiting. When the allergic reaction is severe (anaphylaxis) urgent medical attention is needed as their tongue and throat can swell up, breathing can become difficult and their heart can be affected.
You will usually notice allergy symptoms developing very soon after the food is eaten.
- Baby food intolerance: This is where your baby’s body has an unpleasant reaction triggered by certain food components – but the immune system is not involved. Food intolerance is not an immune reaction so anaphylaxis does not occur and it will not show up during allergy testing.
An example of a food intolerance is lactose intolerance. This is when the body is not producing enough enzymes (lactase) to breakdown and digest the milk sugar lactose.
Food intolerance symptoms can include headaches, hives, mouth ulcers, bloating or stomach upsets. You will usually notice them appear more slowly compared to allergic reactions and they are not usually life threatening.
Common baby food allergies
Food allergies are most common in children under 5 years of age with about 1 in 10 infants and 1 in 20 children having some form of food allergy. Around 60% of allergies will appear during baby’s first year. Most will not be severe with many babies ‘outgrowing’ their allergy as they get older.
Almost any food can cause an allergic reaction but:
- 9 foods have been identified to cause 90% of food allergy reactions: eggs, cow’s milk (dairy), peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish
- Severe life-threatening reactions (anaphylaxis) are most commonly caused by eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish
- Babies are less likely to ‘outgrow’ peanut, tree nut, and seafood allergies – so these tend to be lifelong allergies.
Advice on how to help prevent food allergies has varied over the years, but current recommendations include:
- Don’t introduce solid foods before your baby is 4 months old
- When your baby is ready (at around 6 months of age) start to introduce solid foods ideally while still breastfeeding
- Introduce foods that your family usually eats – which means not excluding or delaying foods that commonly cause allergic reactions (for example, cooked eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and fish)
- Don’t exclude foods from your diet during pregnancy or while breastfeeding – it’s not been shown to prevent allergies.
For more information and tips on when to start introducing solids and the kinds of foods and textures to start with watch our video Introducing Solids
Common baby food intolerances
There are lots of different naturally occurring food components which can trigger problems – the most common intolerance food triggers include:
- Amines which occur naturally in pineapples, bananas, vegetables, chocolate, citrus fruits and mature cheeses
- Salicylates which are found in a wide range of herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables
- Glutamate that occurs naturally in tomatoes, soy sauce, mushrooms and certain cheeses.
There are also other reasons why babies become intolerant to certain foods:
- Babies can be born with enzyme deficiencies and their digestive systems are then unable to breakdown certain foods. Being lactose intolerance, for example, means you lack the enzyme lactase and cannot digest milk properly – which is not the same as having a milk allergy
- Babies can be sensitive to foods additives such as preservatives, flavour enhancers or colours.
If you think your baby is allergic or intolerant to any type of food it is important to seek a professional diagnosis and advice from your medical healthcare practitioner for guidance before changing your baby’s feeding routine.