Are You Experiencing a Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

Foods rich in calcium strengthen your teeth and bones.

Do you know the difference between food allergy and intolerance? (Image: Tatjana Baibakova via Dreamstime)

Do you know the difference between food allergy and intolerance?

In most cases, food allergies manifest with ingesting specific foods, which triggers an antibody reaction within the immune system. The immune system recognizes this usually harmless food as harmful or foreign. It then produces antibodies to attack the foreign object. Food allergy symptoms vary from mild to severe and are sometimes life-threatening. 

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On the other hand, food intolerance is usually caused by a chemical reaction within the body. It may also lack certain enzymes that properly break down certain foods. This leads to mild symptoms, which are usually not deadly.

A food allergy or food intolerance: Which one do you have?

Symptoms of food allergy and food intolerance are more or less the same. However, the significant difference is food allergies trigger an anaphylaxis reaction. An anaphylaxis reaction is a severe, whole-body allergic reaction to a chemical that has become an allergen.

An anaphylaxis reaction can occur within seconds or minutes of exposure to an allergen. Symptoms include a skin rash, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, and shock. If not treated right away, usually with epinephrine, it can result in unconsciousness or death.

A food allergy can produce an anaphylactic reaction that can be fatal.
An anaphylaxis reaction is a severe, whole-body allergic reaction to a chemical that has become an allergen. (Image: Anton Ignatenco via Dreamstime)

Symptoms of a food allergy

Unlike food intolerance, food allergy symptoms might be life-threatening. They need immediate medical attention. It’s important to note that ingesting even a tiny amount of the allergen food can trigger severe symptoms. 

Food allergy symptoms appear immediately after ingesting the food. But it may take 30 minutes to 2 hours for the symptoms to fully manifest in some people. Its symptoms include stomach upset symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. 

Other symptoms include itching, rashes, and swelling of the mouth, lips, face, throat, and other body parts.

In severe cases, anaphylaxis symptoms may include fainting, dizziness, or a high pulse rate. Some people may also have low blood pressure, shortness of breath, and sometimes death. 

Causes of a food allergy

Things that trigger allergic reactions are called allergens. The immune system reacts to proteins in foods identifying them as foreign. 

Foods such as milk, soy, nuts like peanuts, cashew nuts, and walnuts, eggs, wheat, and fish account for about 90 percent of all known food allergies. 

Children may outgrow their allergies when they grow up. But on the other hand, adults can develop food allergies that they did not have later in life.

Studies conducted by the Chicago Food Allergy concluded that food allergy could be passed down the genetic line. They were also able to identify genes linked to specific food allergies. 

Some studies show that food allergy can be a result of environmental factors. They include air pollution, smoke, pesticides, the greenhouse effect, and animal exposure. 

Symptoms of food intolerance

Unlike a food allergy, food intolerance affects the digestive system. Sometimes the body is unable to break down some foods or food components. This can be due to a lack of or improper functioning of the enzymes that break down specific features. 

Food intolerance symptoms are not life-threatening and usually resolve on their own. The symptoms may include stomach upset, diarrhea, gas, or bloating. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, and hyperacidity. 

The most common type of food intolerance is lactose intolerance. It occurs when the body lacks or does not produce enough lactase. This enzyme breaks down lactose, a sugar in milk and other dairy products. 

Other forms of food intolerance include gluten intolerance, which occurs when your body has problems digesting gluten in wheat and rye. Gluten intolerance differs from celiac disease, an autoimmune disease where gluten damages your small intestines. So, note the difference and how they each manifest and affect you or your loved ones. 

Symptoms of food intolerance may take some time to manifest, and sometimes small amounts of food may not trigger a reaction.

The most common type of food intolerance is lactose intolerance.
The most common type of food intolerance is lactose intolerance. (Image: Imoflow via Pixabay)

Causes of food intolerance

Several foods cause intolerance or food sensitivity. They include milk, cheese, other dairy products, chocolate, flavor enhancers, food additives, red wine, strawberries, and citrus fruits. 


To diagnose a food allergy or food intolerance, a physician uses an allergy blood test to check the amount of Immunoglobulin E in the blood, an antibody specific to a particular food or protein. However, the test is inaccurate and may give a false positive result. They can also use other tests such as skin-prick tests and oral food challenges (OFC). 

 A hydrogen breath test can also detect certain types of food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance. But there are no tests to diagnose other forms of discrimination, such as gluten or histamine intolerance. 

Here, your doctor may ask you to avoid certain foods for a while. You may be intolerant if symptoms disappear and reappear when you eat the food. You may also need to keep a food diary to mark or eliminate foods that trigger a reaction. 


Seek medical advice immediately if you experience unusual symptoms after ingesting certain foods. The best way to treat food allergy or intolerance is to eliminate the food from your diet completely. 

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