Food allergies and intolerances

Associate Professor Clare Wall discusses food allergies and intolerances

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Food allergies and intolerances were in the spotlight at the University’s recent Combining Parenting and a Career (CPC) seminar.

Hosted by the Equity Office, HR and the TEU, the CPC seminar was led by Associate Professor Clare Wall, Head of Nutrition and Dietetics in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. She explained the common misunderstandings about food allergies and intolerances and discussed why both seem to be on the rise.

“In a survey, one in five people thought that they had a food allergy, but when the same people were tested, the true prevalence was only seven in 500,” said Clare. “Many people think they have an allergy when they actually have a food intolerance.”

An allergy is a negative immune-mediated response to a food, in which histamine and other inflammatory chemicals are released. Symptoms of an allergic reaction can include face swelling, skin rash or anaphylactic shock. Symptoms of food intolerance may include bloating, stomach cramps or diarrhoea. Food reactions can also depend on environmental factors.

“Eight foods account for 90% of allergic reactions, and most children outgrow milk and egg allergies by the age of five,” said Clare. “Other common allergies like peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, soy and wheat tend to be harder to outgrow.”

Clare described several hypotheses that may explain the prevalence of food allergies: our increasingly hygienic environment may impact our immune systems’ ability to cope with larger proteins in such food as cow's milk and eggs; the perhaps misguided theory of waiting to introduce certain foods until a child turns one; and the theory that modern methods of food processing can alter protein structures that naturally exist in certain foods.

Clare also offered tips on how to ensure children with allergies and intolerances still have a nutritionally-robust diet.

“If you’re going to exclude a food group like milk, you should also ensure that your child is getting enough calcium so they don’t develop any nutritional deficiencies. It is important to ensure that your child is getting the nutrients they require. For example, not all gluten-free substitutes are healthy foods.”