The number of food allergies has steadily increased over the last years, and recent statistics suggest that this trend is continuing: an estimated 2-4 % of adults and 6 % of children are affected by food allergies.
What is a food allergy?
In the event of a real food allergy, the immune system suddenly over-reacts to harmless substances, mostly proteins contained in a food. The body produces specific anti-bodies of the immunoglobulin class IgE. The antibodies formed bind specifically to the protein structures in order to inactivate and then remove them from the body. During these reactions signalling molecules (histamin and others) are released, causing reactions that are typical of (food) allergies such as skin rashes and itching or swelling of the throat.
Food allergies have various causes and functions. Food allergies are treated by avoiding the specific food in the food chain.
Another type of oversensitivity to food are food intolerances. Food intolerances are caused by enzyme deficiencies or enzyme defects. The most well-known intolerances are lactose intolerance (milk) and gluten intolerance (grain). Gluten intolerance is also referred to as coeliac disease or coeliac sprue. A congenital enzyme deficiency or an acquired enzyme defect prevents lactose from being broken up or gluten from being digested. This causes serious discomfort in patients. Gluten intolerance can cause severe symptoms of the digestive tract.
The European Food Safety Association (EFSA) has responded to the increasing problems associated with food allergies and enacted laws stipulating that any substance triggering an allergy (food allergen) must be labelled on the relevant food.