Weekly Comment

Food intolerance: a scientific void

- Last updated on GMT

It is time to draw on science to establish once and for all whether
food intolerance is just a source of succour for hypochondriacs, or
whether it is genuinely a modern scourge.

That means less mud-throwing and a lot more commitment - from governments, health services and the food industry - to clinical studies that will unravel an issue we barely understand.

In the absence of data, gut feelings are leading to an explosion in self-diagnosis. The UK dairy council claims that 45 per cent of Britons now believe they are intolerant to food of one sort or another.

Earlier research by the British Nutrition Foundation put the figure for British people classifying themselves as food intolerant at one-fifth of the population. But the same study reported that while doctors generally thought food intolerance was rising, there were no medical investigations available to support or refute the claim.

Indeed, some of the evidence suggests that there is nothing so likely to produce food intolerance as cutting out specific foods: meaning that the current surge in awareness of allergies as a potential health problem may end up putting in place a food-intolerant population of the future.

As it is, the lack of evidence is now leading to deeply entrenched emotional stances.

Last autumn, I was contacted by someone from the 'industrial bread project'. He told me that the method of modern, industrial bread-baking was contributing to an increase in allergies like gluten intolerance.

Journalist Felicity Lawrence also alluded to this problem in her 2004 book 'Not On The Label'. And, within the last two months, Carole Caplin has warned against promoting milk consumption because of rising milk allergy, in her column for the UK's second best-selling Sunday newspaper, the Mail on Sunday. She also wrote another article entitled: 'How to wean yourself off milk'.

This kind of campaigning stance has only pushed the food industry the other way. The UK Dairy Council put out a press release rubbishing Caplin's stance, while a senior figure in the bakery industry has completely rejected any problem with industrial bread in the strongest of terms.

There is too much hot air being blown around here.

We need more quality research into the whole idea of food intolerance. This research needs to include real patients and address the fact that current diagnosis testing is not up to the job.

Only then may food intolerance come in from the fringes of medical thinking too. The problem lacks resources and respect on the mainstream health service, but a vicious circle develops as patients are forced to seek 'alternative' practitioners. This only dents further the credibility of patients - who may be suffering genuine allergies - with the science-based mainstream.

Sure, some studies have been done and a variety of books have been written, but not in the form or the depth necessary for us to be clear whether the planet earth is flat, or in fact round.

Yet, food intolerance is a problem. Food intolerances and allergies do exist, possibly in greater numbers than is now thought in some circles, and we should not shy away from it.

New statistics from the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations claim that four per cent of adults and eight per cent of children in the EU now have food allergies.

The list of ingredients with the potential to cause allergies or intolerances continues to grow, including nuts, wheat, eggs, tomatoes, dairy (lactose), yeast, seafood, soy and even citrus fruits.

However, unless an allergic reaction in the body can be proved, as with the gluten allergy in coeliac disease, symptoms of food intolerance sufferers remain very generic. They may include a range of problems, such as depression and migraines to bloating and abdominal pains.

And, food companies should care because their situation is about to get very hairy.

From 25 November this year, the EU will begin enforcing new rules requiring food firms to declare on labels whether a product contains potential food allergens. You can almost hear the lawyers drooling. Accurate diagnosis of patients and competent testing for allergen content will be essential for the food industry.

Several firms have launched testing kits for potential allergen content, while a new Food Allergy Research Consortium has just been launched in the US with $17m for five-year's research.

These are at least steps in the right direction, yet it will take a lot more money and a lot more commitment to serious medical study to improve knowledge of food intolerance worldwide. Now is the time to lay down the placards and get on with it.

Chris Mercer is editor on BeverageDaily.com and DairyReporter.com. He has also worked as a freelance writer and researcher for other media including BBC Radio 4. Send any comments to Chris at chris.mercer@novisgroup.com​.

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