The last decade has seen a sharp rise in food intolerances for adults and children– but why? Staples in our diet such as bread, meat and milk along with an abundance of vegetables have long been the backbone of our kitchens. This article unpicks the reasons behind this sudden threat to our health and how we can eat cleaner and smarter to restore our digestive balance.
Let’s quickly differentiate between an allergy and an intolerance, as these are commonly confused. Allergies are the body’s immune response to an otherwise harmless food which can range from mild symptoms to life threatening anaphylactic shock and severe swelling. Food intolerances do not involve the immune system or cause severe allergic reactions but involve a chemical reaction to a particular element of food or drink. Research from the NutriNet-Santé Study (2018) suggests inorganic food that is laced with pesticides disrupts the gut flora and contributes to the development of food intolerances.
So What Has Changed?
The intensification of farming over the last hundred years has created huge global debate. High crop yields satisfy a growing world market and the efficient and economical agricultural practices keep food prices affordable whilst maximising profit for farmers. Conversely, such dramatic changes to farming systems have resulted in excessive use of chemicals and hormones in order to sustain demand. Not only considered cruel and less hygienic, it creates infections and disease amongst animals. There is a direct correlation between the growth of intensive farming and the number of reported food intolerances over time for two main reasons:
A study by Elle Fox, from The College of Naturopathic Medicine, found that intense agricultural practices cause nutritional loss to the foods we grow. She found that organic plants alone contain up to 25% higher nutritional content. Crop-based foods have been found to have up to 60% higher number of antioxidants –the equivalent of 1-2 additional portions of fruit and vegetables. The NutriNet-Santé Study (2018) also states that healthy soils associated with organic cultivation produce healthier food. Higher consumption of such high-quality foods can contribute to help fight disease and reduce food intolerances, according to a study from The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS).
Consumption of Anti-biotics, Hormones and Synthetic Pesticides
Conventional livestock are fed anti-biotics to prevent illnesses and synthetic growth hormones to gain weight faster and produce more milk. This infiltrates down to consumer- such exposure has been found to be the cause of some food intolerances. Evidence suggests that a person may have immune triggers to synthetic substances and chemicals in the foods they consume, as opposed to reacting to the food type itself. A research study by NCBI (2018) found those with exposure to agrochemicals were at greater risk of food allergies and intolerances compared with those consuming organically cultivated produce. The EPRS support this theory through their research, agreeing that consumption of organic produce considerably reduces exposure to pesticides and the risks they carry.
By removing synthetic poison and unnecessary hormones from our foods through an organic diet, can we reduce food intolerances along the way? An interesting find at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork noted that of the 25% of students who arrive with a reported food intolerance- apart from coeliac- all leave with no symptoms of their intolerance as all of the food produce is 100% organic.
Avoiding foods containing pesticides can help towards rebalancing the gut and leaning towards a more balanced, food-tolerant lifestyle. So if you do decide to go organic, try out your local farmer’s market. Rinsing vegetables will remove the soil but will leave the good bacteria which is kind to your digestive and immune system. Check out for your nearest one.
Can Probiotics Help Too?
We can see by keeping out the synthetic nasties helps restore peace within the digestive system. So what can we put in to keep our gut health in tip-top condition? Probiotics are gut-friendly bacteria that can further alleviate food intolerance symptoms as they enrich the gut, aiding digestion and supporting the immune system. Foods such as live yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, and sourdough bread are all examples of probiotics-rich foods.
To enhance the potential of these probiotics, prebiotics can be included in your diet. These are types of fibre that occur naturally in many whole foods, and are particularly prevalent in organically grown produce. Include organic legumes, oats, bananas, garlic, onions, leeks, nuts and seeds to compliment probiotic activity in the gut.
Liz Earle, an advocate for healthy living and author of The Good Gut Guide, suggests avoiding expensive ‘free-from’ alternatives and instead encourages us to ‘find out why we might be reacting and rebalance the gut through an organic diet and probiotics.’