Food allergies arise from sensitivity to chemical compounds (proteins) in food, even compounds that are found naturally in food. Food allergies are more common in people whose family members have allergies, suggesting a genetic — or hereditary — factor may be involved with the development of food allergies.
Food allergies develop after you are exposed to a food protein that your body thinks is harmful. The first time you eat the food containing the protein, your immune system responds by creating specific disease-fighting antibodies (called immunoglobulin E or IgE). When you eat the food again, it triggers the release of IgE antibodies and other chemicals, including histamine, in an effort to expel the protein “invader” from your body. Histamine is a powerful chemical that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin or cardiovascular system.
The allergy symptoms you have depend on where in the body the histamine is released. If it is released in the ears, nose and throat, you may have an itchy nose and mouth, or trouble breathing or swallowing. If histamine is released in the skin, you may develop hives or a rash. If histamine is released in the gastrointestinal tract, you likely will develop stomach pains, cramps or diarrhea. Many people experience a combination of symptoms as the food is eaten and digested.
There are many factors that may contribute to food intolerance. In some cases — as with lactose intolerance — the person lacks the chemicals, called enzymes, necessary to properly digest certain proteins found in food. Also common are intolerances to some chemical ingredients added to food to provide color, enhance taste and protect against the growth of bacteria. These ingredients include various dyes and monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer.
Substances called sulfites, which may occur naturally — as in red wines — or may be added to prevent the growth of mold, also are a source of intolerance for some people. The use of spray-on sulfates to preserve fruits and vegetables was banned, but sulfates are still found naturally in some foods. Salicylates are a group of plant chemicals found naturally in many fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, juices, beer and wine. Aspirin also is a compound of the salicylate family. Foods containing salicylates may trigger symptoms in people who are sensitive to aspirin. Of course, any food consumed in excessive quantities can cause digestive symptoms.