Food allergies & intolerances

Children are often diagnosed with food allergies or intolerances, but what does that mean?

A true food allergy is one that elicits an immune response reacting to a protein found in the food. The body reacts because it does not recognise the protein and thinks it’s toxic or harmful to the body. The immune system mounts an attack on this threat which can lead to symptoms such as hives, swelling, the closing of airways, pain, vomiting or diarrhoea. Food allergies can be fatal. There must be complete avoidance of foods containing the food allergen to prevent a reaction.

Food intolerances, however, do not involve the immune system and do not cause severe allergic reactions (know as anaphylaxis). Food allergy and food intolerance are commonly confused because symptoms of food intolerance occasionally resemble those of food allergy. Food intolerance can be a difficult concept to understand and is poorly understood by doctors. Sometimes substances within foods can increase the frequency and severity of migraine headaches, rashes (such as hives) or the stomach upset of irritable bowel. Coincidence can often confuse the issue because we spend many of our waking hours eating or drinking. The best approach is first to consult your doctor.

What are the common causes of food allergies?

Ninety per cent of food allergies are caused by nuts, eggs, milk or soy. Among children, peanut allergy is the most common and can often result in anaphylaxis.

 What are the common causes of food intolerance?

Common intolerances include lactose intolerance, which is when the body is unable to process lactose, a natural sugar that is found in cow’s milk and products such as ice cream, cheese and yoghurt. Some people may be intolerant to naturally occurring food chemicals including glutamates, salicylates and amines, or artificial ones including some colours.

Glutamate is found naturally in many foods as it improves the flavour of the food. Tomatoes, mushroom, cheese are high in glutamates, pure glutamate in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG) can be added to soups, Asian cooking and snacks to enhance flavour. Salicylates are chemicals found naturally in fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices, honey, juices and many other foods. Amines are found in cheese, chocolate and certain fruits including bananas and avocados. If you’re intolerant to naturally occurring food chemicals, there is a high likelihood that you will be allergic to other food additives. It is important to consult your doctor or an Accredited Practising Dietitian for diagnosis.

Is Coeliac Disease an allergy or intolerance?

Children can suffer wheat allergies, however coeliac disease does not fall into either of these categories, as it is an autoimmune disease. Please visit our page on coeliac disease for more information.

What should I do if my child has an intolerance or allergy?

If your child suffers from an allergy, it is vital to create an action plan in case an allergic reaction occurs. The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) have created templates that can be filled out by GPs and information passed onto parents, caregivers and schoolteachers of the child. You can find it here:

As a parent, approach your school to discuss your child’s allergies and their food requirements. Government schools are required to develop an individual health care plan for each student with allergies. Visit your school canteen and make them aware of who your child is and foods that are safe for their consumption. It is important to note that schools are not required to ban any known food allergens or food that “may contain” a known allergen.

For free Food Allergy Training for your school canteen staff click here

For more information on what canteens can do to minimise the risk of an allergic reaction, please read this anaphylaxis fact sheet.

Visit your GP or a find a dietitian using Dietitians Australia.

Thanks to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) for this information.