The Rise of Food Intolerance

Drew Coffman

Two weeks ago I wrote an article about why we are suffering from more allergies than we used to. I have similar questions about food intolerances, which unlike food allergies, involve the digestive system, not the immune system (except for celiac disease). Is the rise of food intolerance due to advances in diagnosing disorders or are cases of food intolerance actually increasing? These questions have been front and center for me since I was diagnosed with the digestive disorder fructose malabsorption and wanted to figure out why and how. Additionally, as I have become more aware and informed about fructose malabsorption, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, and other digestive disorders, I have met and read about people who have issues with their digestive systems and there seems to be a lot of people who are suffering. Regardless of whether we are more aware of and better at diagnosing food intolerances, there is a definite increase in diagnosed intolerances and how they are affecting our digestive systems. For example, the United Kingdom has seen a 10 fold increase in food intolerances in the last 25 years, with 45% of its population affected.

One example of an increase of food intolerance is celiac disease. In 2010, there was four times the incidence of celiac disease since 1950 in the UK. Dr. Joseph Murray, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic saw a high rate of celiac disease when he was a medical student in Ireland where celiac disease is more prevalent due to genetics. When he moved to Iowa in 1988, he only diagnosed one patient a year and in 2010 he treated 100 a year.

Wheat, gluten, lactose, fructose, natural substances, food additives, and more may cause food intolerances. The most common known foods to cause an intolerance are beans, cabbage, milk, citrus fruits, processed meats, and gluten containing products. Food intolerance is caused when foods irritate the digestive system or the body is unable to digest or process the food. This can be due to foods causing a bad chemical reaction or due to a deficiency of a specific enzyme. For example, lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the sugar lactose in milk. Symptoms can take hours or days to appear and they might develop after one eats a large amount of a certain food whether at once or over time.

So why are there more cases of food intolerances than there was 50-70 years ago? Scientists have suggested several causes for this rise.

  • We are consuming more processed foods. This includes food additives that can cause adverse chemical reactions in the body. Some examples are monosodium glutamate (MSG) used to enhance flavor, carmine and annatto to add color, and sulfites to preserve the food. Additionally, natural chemicals such as salicylates, which are a defense mechanism used by plants and found in fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs to name a few, are also a problem. They are found in high amounts in processed foods with flavor additives. In small amounts, there may be no effect of any of these chemicals, but with the large amounts of processed foods we are eating, there has been more damage to our digestive systems. Additionally, many of the benefits we gain from raw ingredients are lost in our current process of manufacturing food.
  • We are eating more fructose. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we have increased our ingestion of fructose 32-48% between 1970 and 2004. One theory is that our digestive systems can only process a certain amount of fructose at one time leading to fructose malabsorption if we eat too much. You can read more on this topic from my post What are the possible causes of fructose malabsorption?
  • Due to food engineering including hybridization of different strains, the types of wheat we are eating are different than 60 years ago and the gluten in some of the wheat has increased from 4 to 14%. Additionally, we are consuming foods we never did before such as vegetarian “meat”. These items have vital wheat gluten added to it potentially resulting in increased consumption of gluten.
  • Baking bread used to take time and allow for fermentation, which would break down some of the proteins including gluten. Now, due to the addition of chemicals and enzymes known as improvers and processing aids, as well as and current methods used to make bread, the fermentation process is different than in the past, leading to increased gluten in the breads we eat today. Additionally, milk is subjected to high pressure, heating during homogenization, and pasteurization, which may make milk less digestible.
  • Some scientists think that pollutants in our environment, poor soil, intensive farming, and our daily stressful lives also contribute to the increase in irritable bowel syndrome and chronic inflammatory diseases.

Overall, studies to date indicate the main factors for the increase in food intolerances are changes in what we are eating, increased consumption of possible irritants, and how our food is made.

Do you agree that we are suffering from more food intolerances? If so, what are your thoughts on why?

Photo taken by Drew Coffman on Unsplash



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s