Food Sensitivities

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Are you allergic, or simply sensitive to certain foods? Tracy Kwong explains the difference

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According to AllergyUK, a health charity in the United Kingdom, 45 per cent of the UK population is estimated to be suffering from delayed food reaction. But what about Hong Kong? Up to now, there are no specific studies on the prevalence of food sensitivity for the Hong Kong population. Although, according to research from a leading local wellness test in Hong Kong, 95 per cent of people who took the test were found to be sensitive to at least one food. Eggs (including chicken and duck eggs), cow’s milk and its products, and gluten are always the top offending foods in Hong Kong.

Allergic or sensitive, what’s the difference?

‘Food allergies,’ ‘food sensitivities’ and ‘food intolerances’ are often used interchangeably to describe any unpleasant experience after eating the ‘wrong’ food. It can be very confusing to differentiate between the three as they share many of the same signs and symptoms. Technically speaking, allergies and sensitivities involve our immune system. This is why people with these two health concerns usually go for blood tests, hoping to measure the level of antibodies (like IgE and IgG) in the blood, which could be interpreted as our bodies’ signal against specific foods. A food allergic reaction can be very frightening and even life threatening, with symptoms that usually develop within a few minutes to two hours after eating foods that contain allergens. On the contrary, symptoms of food sensitivities take hours or days to show up and look less dramatic and acute than that of food allergies, making it even harder to pinpoint the culprits.

Food sensitivity from a medical point of view

The detailed mechanism of food sensitivity is largely unknown. A more widely accepted explanation for food sensitivity is that food should normally be digested to its simplest form – amino acid, glycerol and simple sugar – for absorption and converting into energy. However, when food doesn’t break down fully, some of the undigested proteins enter the immune system and trigger the secretion of immune-complexes through the impaired intestinal lining. This is possibly caused by leaky gut syndrome due to a stressful lifestyle, poor diet and other factors. These complexes travel along the blood stream and attach to different tissues, causing chronic inflammatory reactions and an array of symptoms.

Challenges for people with diet restrictions in Hong Kong

It is unlikely that staff working in local restaurants have been trained to realise the impact of allergies or sensitivities on diners. The practice of having a clear list of all ingredients used in every dish is not yet available to keep diners informed. Also, some hidden ingredients in sauces like oyster sauce and shrimp paste are easily neglected. In short, a lot of education for the public and training for people working in the food and beverage industry has to be done.

One of the good things about Hong Kong is that we have a wide variety of food options and it is easy to access different food ingredients, be it from small healthy food specialty stores, local grocery stores, or international supermarket chains.

Tracy is the author of The Food Sensitivity Handbook (食物不敏感手冊), a book consolidating theories from healthcare experts and stories from people working to make the community friendlier to people with diet restrictions.

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