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Food allergies or intolerance? What you don't know can hurt you

Mike Metzger

Mike Metzger had not felt good for years. He had had backaches, stomach aches, muscle twitches and blurred vision since he was in high school. He was sick and no one seemed to be able to find what was wrong with him.

"I thought 'if this is what you feel like when you are 30, I don't want to live to be 60,'" he said as he sat in is reality office in Price.

Mike's family sometimes holds Bible study classes in his home and one day a good friend of his attended.

"I asked him to pray for me and told him all about the physical problems I had been having," stated Metzger. "He told me to get wheat out of my diet."

So Metzger took himself off almost all processed foods (many of which contain wheat products) as well as discontinued eating bread. Suddenly he came down with an intesinal infection, and could only eat broth and water for a number of days.

"I felt so good after that despite the fact I had had nothing solid to eat for some time," he said.

So he stayed off anything with wheat products in it. He felt really good and was becoming a believer.

"Then it came time for our anniversary and I took my wife out for dinner in Provo," he explained. "I looked at her and said, 'I am going to eat anything I want tonight.'"

Within 30 minutes he was so sick he could hardly get out of the restaurant.

He just chalked it up to bad food so time and time again he went from no wheat in his diet to eating something that had it.

Each time he would get very sick. Eventually he said he came to the realization that it was the wheat and wheat derivatives that were causing the problems.

"I had that condition for 10 years and didn't realize it," he said. "In high school I couldn't see, I was depressed and everything ached. I think that is when it began."

The problem is that when one feels bad for so long they start to accept it as normal and that is what Metzger did.

Metzger has what is called a food intolerance, although he says he often tells people it is an allergy because it is easier for them to understand. The line between the two, however, is a close one.

According to WebMD, a health site, a food allergy is an immune system response. It happens when the body mistakes an ingredient in food -- usually a protein -- as harmful and creates a defense system (antibodies) to fight it. Food allergy symptoms develop when the antibodies are battling the "invading" food. The most common food allergies are peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans and almonds), fish, and shellfish, milk, eggs, soy products, and wheat.

The same site lists food intolerance as a digestive system response rather than an immune system response. It occurs when something in a food irritates a person's digestive system or when a person is unable to properly digest or breakdown, the food. Intolerance to lactose, which is found in milk and other dairy products, is the most common food intolerance.

Over the years the United States Food and Drug Administration has been trying to address the problems of intolerance and allergies. In the news in recent years have been recalls of products that may have something like peanuts in it, but it is not listed on the label. Non-listed products in foods can be deadly for some people.

Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act in 2004. The law applies to all foods regulated by FDA, both domestic and imported, that were labeled on or after January 1, 2006.

Before this law, the labels of foods made from two or more ingredients were required to list all ingredients by their common, or usual, names. The names of some ingredients, however, did not clearly identify their source. Now, the labels must clearly identify the source of all ingredients that are, or are derived from, the eight most common food allergens.

While more than 160 foods can cause allergic reactions in people with food allergies, the law identifies the eight most common allergenic foods. These foods account for 90 percent of food allergic reactions, and are the food sources from which many other ingredients are derived.

The eight foods identified by the law are milk, eggs, fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod), crustacean shellfish (e.g. crab, lobster, shrimp), tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans), peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

These eight foods, and any ingredient that contains protein derived from one or more of them, are designated as "major food allergens" by the law.

The law requires that food labels identify the food source of all major food allergens. Unless the food source of a major food allergen is part of the ingredient's common or usual name (or is already identified in the ingredient list), it must be included in one of two ways.

First the name of the food source of a major food allergen must appear in parentheses following the name of the ingredient. Examples include "lecithin (soy)," "flour (wheat)," and "whey (milk)"

Second, immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a "contains" statement. Examples includes "Contains wheat, milk, and soy."

Metzger says that people would be surprised what contains the part of that is his problem, wheat.

One day he was doing a long distance drive and got really tired so he decided to grab something to eat and ordered a Dr. Pepper with it.

"I got sick almost right away," he said. "They use wheat in the manufacturing for the caramel color in the soda. I don't drink soda anymore at all."

He also said that sometimes that wheat products get into food even thought they are not supposed to.

"Even if the food you eat comes from a plant where a wheat process is done, but they aren't adding it to the product you buy, you can get sick from it," he says.

Metzger still makes breads, muffins and other things that generally use wheat as their base, but he uses a different kind of flower made from things like rice, garbanzo beans, and almonds.

"Pasta is out and that has been hard," he said. "We can eat meat, fish, poultry, fruit, vegetables, rice and potatoes."

He pointed out that while beef and poultry may eat wheat type grains, their bodies process it and they can't pass along the substances that cause his illness.

Metzger says he has what is termed a "multi symptom disease." In some cases allergies and intolerance show up in more specific ways, depending on the person.

Allergies usually have symptoms that include rashes or hives, stomach pain and/or nausea, diarrhea, itchy areas on the skin or even under the skin, the ability to not catch ones breath, chest pains, and swelling of airways.

Food intolerance includes symptoms that are sometimes similar such as nausea, stomach pain with gas and sometimes cramps, throwing up, heartburn, headaches and in some cases diarrhea. Intolerance and also be symptomized by irritability and depression too.

"I was depressed a lot too before I made the dietary changes," said Metzger.

He also said that since he had changed his diet his whole family has also changed theirs, and their health has been better for it.

"My kids had some of the symptoms too so we put them on the diet," said Metzger. "They have found what they think to be a hereditary marker for what I have so it is possible my kids have it too."

Allergies and intolerance for foods attacks one in every 133 people in the United States. Sometimes the reactions are to these maladies are so slight that people hardly notice them. Other times they can be deadly. According to the FDA, symptoms that start out mild can channel themselves toward being fatal. Each year food allergies and intolerance lead to 30,000 emergency room visits, 2000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths.

Metzger has been off wheat products and those things with wheat in them for two and a half years. He says he has never felt better in his life.

"I feel great now as long as I stay on my gluten free diet," he states.

And as long as he remains vigilant about what is contained in products he might ingest.

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