Health Literacy: Food Allergy or Intolerance?

Do you understand your health?  Health literacy measures how well someone can find, communicate, process and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions (1).  There can be a lot of confusion when trying to understand terms related to health used by the media, internet, or health care professionals while searching for information about your well-being; especially when you come across words that may be unfamiliar. With different messages coming from a variety of sources, it can be easy to misunderstand your own health status.

You may have heard about a recent study that explored introducing peanuts to infants and the effect on the development of a peanut allergy. While, food allergies are a current topic in healthcare, it is one that is often misunderstood. According to Food Allergy and Research (FARE), “Food allergies affects up to 15 million people in the US with 1 in 13 being children” (2).  In recent years the number of people who have been diagnosed with a food allergy has grown, but there are no actual answers as to why there has been an increase in the prevalence of food allergies. According to the FDA  “there are 160 different types of food allergies but only eight are listed as major food allergens” (3). These foods include:

  1. Milk
  2. Eggs
  3. Fish
  4. Crustacean shellfish
  5. Tree nuts
  6. Peanuts
  7. Wheat
  8. Soybeans
What is a food allergy?

 National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) defines a food allergy as “an abnormal response to a food activated by the body’s immune system” (4). A food allergy can sometimes be confused with food intolerance. It is easy to confuse food allergies with food intolerance because some signs and symptoms are similar; however, the reaction to the food is less severe for a person with food intolerance than for a person with a true food allergy. (4) Someone with a food allergy must avoid eating that food to prevent a life-threatening reaction. In some cases, skin contact with an allergen can cause uncomfortable non-life-threatening symptoms like redness, itchiness or swelling. Symptoms of food intolerance may cause gastrointestinal discomfort such as “heartburn, cramps, belly pain, or diarrhea” after eating specific foods that have been identified as the culprit such as milk and dairy products, corn products, or wheat and other grains (5).

Food allergies need to be diagnosed by a medical professional such as a board-certified allergist to determine if you truly have a food allergy. (6) The allergist will review your medical history, ask you questions about the causes of the potential food that is triggering allergy symptoms, perform a physical examination, and take blood samples. An oral food challenge is the gold standard for diagnosing food allergies and should be performed in a doctor’s office with a qualified allergist (6). Chef and registered dietitian Garrett Berdan recently shared his family’s experience of peanut allergy testing, including multiple food challenges, with his young son.

A food allergy or intolerance diagnosis can be life changing but both conditions are manageable. Healthcare providers can provide the best guidance for your specific situation. To learn more about food allergies, including guidelines from the CDC and food allergy advocacy groups on managing this issue in schools, visit


1) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Literacy. Available at:  Accessed on September 20, 2014.

2)  Food Allergy Research & Education. About Food Allergies. Available at: .  Accessed on September 20, 201

3) U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Food. Available at:  Accessed on September 21, 2014.

4) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Food Allergy and Overview. Available at: Accessed on September 21, 2014.

5) Medline Plus. Food Allergy. Available at: . Accessed on November 1, 2014.

(6) Food Allergy Research &Education. Diagnosing and Testing. Available at: Accessed on September 21, 2014

7) Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in School and Early Care and Education Programs. Available at: Accessed on November 1, 2014.

8) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Guidelines for the Management of Food Allergy in the United States. Available at:  Accessed on October 13, 2014

 This post was written by Georgia Department of Public Health dietetic intern Khalilah Johnson and reviewed and approved by Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN.

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