Ask one of your grandparents and they’ll probably tell you that food intolerances were pretty unheard of in their day. Free From options simply didn’t exist and, on the whole, people were generally less concerned about the ingredients on their plates.
Look around a supermarket now and it’s a very different story. New alternatives and options hit the shelves every week, catering to our diversifying, and more decerning, palates.
So, is it a clever marketing ploy, or are food intolerances truly on the rise?
What is food intolerance?
Food intolerances can occur when your body’s immune system mistakes a food protein as a threat, releasing antibodies to fight it. This reaction can result in a range of inflammatory symptoms, such as IBS and bloating, headaches, brain fog, skin complaints like eczema or acne, or joint pain.
There are a couple of food intolerances that are specific to a particular ingredient and for which testing is available on the NHS. These include lactose intolerance, a sensitivity to the sugars in milk, and Coeliac disease, a specific sensitivity to gluten. For more general food intolerance, which could involve any, or a variety of foods, the NHS doesn’t yet offer testing.
It’s estimated that around 45% of the UK population has some kind of food intolerance. Food sensitivities can vary in severity and often aren’t related to just one trigger food. But if older generations remain adamant that food intolerances just weren’t ‘a thing’ a few decades ago, what’s going on?
An over-processed diet
A common factor often blamed for the rise in reactions is down to the over-processing of many foods we consume in our modern diets.
From fast food to ready meals, confectionary to salty snacks, many of the foods we eat regularly are processed. Additional fats, salts, sugars and chemicals are added to increase shelf life and to make the product tasty and moreish.
Unfortunately, these foods don’t only wreak havoc on our waistlines, they can also irritate the gut, causing inflammation and sensitivity.
Foods which are highly processed often lack the nutritional density we need to really get the health benefits of the raw ingredients. What we get instead are the additives.
In the grand scheme of human evolution, processed foods are still a relatively new invention, which have increased exponentially in the last few decades. Prior to their introduction, and subsequent popularity and easy availability, people tended to cook from scratch, using fresh, whole ingredients and getting more benefit from their food.
A culture of snacking
Hand-in-hand with the consumption of processed foods is our tendency to snack more. Outside of the structure of three square meals a day, and with more hectic work schedules and busier lives, the door has opened for the rise of convenience foods.
Quick, easy, grab and go options tend to be processed and packaged, made enticing by clever ad campaigns and placed in easy reach of the checkout.
Where eating between meals was once seen as unseemly, now it’s a common and natural part of everyday life.
But all the additional calories, sugars, salts and fats are not great for the gut, causing more stress to our digestive systems. They also often contribute to cycles of cravings and blood sugar crashes.
Under-developed immune systems
It’s been suggested that the proliferation of cleaning products, better hygiene standards and children less interested in outdoor play is leading to a generation of people with under-developed immune systems.
Grandparents might joke that eating a little dirt never did them any harm, but there could be some solid science in the silliness. Exposure to a complex system of germs and microbes when we’re young can help our developing immune system understand what are threats, and what aren’t.
Science and medical expertise are ever evolving. A lot of things we assumed about our health, diets and lifestyles have changed over the years, thanks to research and understanding.
Our understanding of food intolerances too is increasing as we learn more about the impact of our modern diets and we have more access to the technology needed to give us a clearer picture of our health than ever before.
Perhaps food intolerances aren’t on the rise. We simply have more ability now to understand what’s causing some of the common symptoms many of us simply put up with before.
Take control of your diet
Getting to the bottom of a food intolerance can be frustrating. A common recommendation is the elimination diet, where you remove one food at a time for a few weeks to see how you feel. But this process can take a long time. And, although many of us commonly react to a few different ingredients, the elimination diet is often abandoned when the first trigger food is found, leaving an incomplete picture of what’s causing the problem.
Get answers faster with Smartblood
When it comes to food intolerance testing, it’s important to do your research and choose a reputable laboratory testing company.
At Smartblood, we offer a comprehensive test to help you take control of your diet quickly and discover your own trigger foods.
Our home-to-laboratory service gives you fast, accurate results that pinpoint exactly which foods you are reacting to. Tests are completed in our accredited laboratory by trained experts, with clear, easy to understand results sent to you via email within three days.
Most importantly, our tests include a telephone consultation with our BANT registered Nutritional Therapist. This additional support is there to help you understand your results and put a plan together to make safe, sustainable changes to optimise your diet.