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Reported cases of food allergy have risen significantly over the last 10 years but are we really all becoming more allergic? 

A food allergy is a reproducible immune reaction to food, it is often referred to in conjunction with food intolerances yet intolerances don’t involve an immune system response and although less severe can result in debilitating, life changing symptoms.  The unique difference between an intolerance and a true allergy is that a lifetime exclusion diet is not usually required for an intolerance – small amounts can usually be reintroduced to the diet and tolerated. Coeliac Disease, which affects about 1% of people in the UK, is a type of allergy and autoimmune condition which requires lifetime avoidance of gluten.

The self-reported prevalence of food allergy is about 6% across Europe yet numbers diagnosed are closer to 1%, however both show a growing prevalence of food allergies. Food allergies are more prevalent in children than adults, as many children can grow out of allergies, and North Western parts of Europe have higher rates compared to the rest of Europe (Southern Europe are lowest). Cows milk and egg allergies are most common in younger children with peanut, tree nuts, fish and shellfish more common in adults and older children (reflecting the changes in diet with age). Although there are a diverse multitude of allergy tests available online and over the counter, the only evidence based test that can diagnose a food allergy is through a Skin Prick Test and Food Challenge. Unfortunately, we still do not have validated tests to diagnose food intolerances, which explains the continued ambiguity in this area.

The causes of food allergies and intolerances continue to be debated, although family history is known to be involved, interest is growing in the impact of environmental factors such as diet, lifestyle, geographic location and exposure.  National advice in the UK and USA has recently changed as well; instead of recommending a delay in introduction of highly allergenic foods, they recommend the introduction combined with breastfeeding.

Lactose intolerance, the most common food intolerance in the UK, is usually a temporary condition when the body struggles to breakdown the natural sugars (lactose) in milk which can result in digestive symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating and discomfort. 

Whether self-reported or diagnosed, celebrity endorsed or GP recommended, growing numbers of customers are attributing symptoms of reactions to food and seeking alternatives in their diet. The important part to any change in diet is to ensure foods which are removed are replaced with alternatives that provide similar calories, nutrients and choice for example milk alternatives that provide calcium, protein and iodine or gluten free choices that are high in fibre, wholegrain and healthy carbohydrates. At M&S, we continue to grow our offer and choice of alternative foods and ingredients with quality, taste and choice at the heart of this development.