5 Key Differences of Food Intolerance from Food Allergy

Understanding the differences of food intolerance from food allergy is vital for maintaining optimal health and managing dietary choices. While food intolerances primarily stem from the digestive system’s inability to process certain food components, food allergies involve the immune system’s overreaction to specific proteins in food. Recognising the unique characteristics of these conditions can help individuals make informed decisions about their diets and overall well-being.

Unfortunately, confusion about the differences of food intolerance from food allergy is common, leading to unnecessary dietary restrictions or exposure to allergens that can cause severe reactions. Gaining a clear understanding of the differences of food intolerance from food allergy empowers us to take control of our health and make better-informed dietary choices.

This article will explore both conditions’ definitions, causes, and symptoms, compare their key differences, and discuss strategies for identifying and managing them. 

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is the body’s inability to properly digest or break down certain foods or food components, leading to uncomfortable symptoms. The differences of food intolerance from food allergy is significant, as food intolerance involves the digestive system and is usually less severe, while food allergies are caused by the immune system’s overreaction to specific proteins in food and can have more severe consequences.

Common Causes 

Understanding the common causes of food intolerance is essential for managing symptoms and making informed dietary choices. These causes primarily stem from the body’s inability to produce specific enzymes or other factors needed to digest certain compounds in food. Here, we will explore some of the most prevalent causes of food intolerance that affect individuals’ quality of life.

1. Lactose Intolerance

Difficulty digesting lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products, due to a deficiency of the enzyme lactase.

Foods to Avoid:

  • Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and sheep’s milk
  • Ice cream and frozen yoghurt
  • Soft, fresh cheeses like cottage cheese, cream cheese, and ricotta
  • Whey protein powder
  • Puddings and custards
  • Cream-based sauces and soups
  • Butter and margarine containing milk derivatives

2. Gluten Sensitivity

Difficulty digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, can cause gastrointestinal discomfort and other symptoms in sensitive individuals.

Foods to Avoid:

  • Wheat-based bread, pasta, and cereals
  • Barley, rye, and triticale
  • Couscous, bulgur, and semolina
  • Seitan (wheat gluten)
  • Beer (unless labelled gluten-free)
  • Soy sauce (unless labelled gluten-free)
  • Wheat-based crackers, cookies, and cakes

3. Fructose Malabsorption

Difficulty absorbing fructose, a sugar found in many fruits, vegetables, and sweeteners, leads to gastrointestinal symptoms.

Foods to Avoid:

  • High-fructose fruits like apples, pears, cherries, and watermelon
  • Sweeteners with high fructose content, such as high fructose corn syrup, honey, and agave syrup
  • Fruit juices made from high-fructose fruits, like apple and pear juice
  • Sodas and soft drinks containing high fructose corn syrup
  • Dried fruits with high fructose levels, like raisins, dates, and figs
  • Processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup or other fructose-rich additives

4. Histamine Intolerance

Difficulty breaking down histamine, a naturally occurring compound in some foods, can cause symptoms similar to an allergic reaction.

Foods to Avoid:

  • Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, soy sauce, and yogurt
  • Aged or matured cheeses, like blue cheese, gouda, and cheddar
  • Cured, smoked, or fermented meats, such as salami, pepperoni, and prosciutto
  • Alcoholic beverages, especially red wine, beer, and champagne
  • Canned or pickled foods, like canned fish, pickles, and olives
  • Vinegar and vinegar-containing foods, like pickles, mustard, and certain salad dressings
  • High-histamine vegetables and fruits, like tomatoes, spinach, eggplant, and avocados

5. Sensitivity to Food Additives

Difficulty tolerating certain food additives, such as artificial colours, flavours, or preservatives, which can cause gastrointestinal or other symptoms in sensitive individuals.

Foods to Avoid:

  • Foods containing artificial food colourings, like candies, sodas, and baked goods
  • Processed meats containing nitrates and nitrites, like hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats
  • Packaged snacks with additives, like chips, crackers, and popcorn
  • Instant and ready-made meals containing artificial flavours, colours, and preservatives
  • Sodas and soft drinks with artificial sweeteners, colours, and flavours
  • Canned and preserved foods with added preservatives
  • Condiments and salad dressings containing artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives

Common Symptoms of Food Intolerance

The symptoms of food intolerance can vary among individuals, but some common signs can help distinguish it from food allergies. While food intolerance symptoms are generally less severe, they can still impact an individual’s quality of life.

Common symptoms of food intolerance include:

  1. Bloating

A feeling of fullness or swelling in the abdomen, often caused by excess gas production or disturbances in the digestive process.

  1. Gas

The accumulation of gas in the digestive system, which can cause discomfort, bloating, and flatulence.

  1. Abdominal Pain

Discomfort or pain in the abdomen, which can range from mild to severe and may be accompanied by cramping or spasms.

  1. Diarrhoea

Loose, watery stools that occur more frequently than usual can result from diarrhoea or the body’s inability to properly digest or absorb certain food components.

  1. Nausea

A feeling of unease or discomfort in the stomach, often accompanied by an urge to vomit, which can be triggered by consuming foods that are difficult to digest.

  1. Headaches

Pain or discomfort in the head can be caused by sensitivity to certain food components or additives.

  1. Fatigue

A feeling of tiredness or exhaustion resulting from the body’s struggle to properly digest or absorb certain foods.

Zoe Wilson, accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist, says: “I think food intolerances are on the rise due to our knowledge and awareness of them. People used to just ‘deal with’ symptoms or avoid foods that didn’t ‘sit well’ with them.

Managing Food Intolerance

Understanding the differences of food intolerance from food allergy is crucial for adopting appropriate management strategies. Here are some dietary and lifestyle modifications to manage food intolerance:

  1. Identify and Eliminate Trigger Foods

Keep a food diary to track your symptoms and identify the foods causing intolerance. Gradually eliminate these foods from your diet.

  1. Introduce Alternatives

Replace the trigger foods with alternative options that provide similar nutrients but do not cause adverse reactions.

  1. Consider Portion Size

Small amounts of problematic food may be tolerated for some intolerances. Experiment with portion sizes to determine your tolerance threshold.

  1. Get Professional Advice

Consult with a healthcare provider or nutritionist to ensure you manage your intolerance effectively and maintain a balanced diet.

  1. Focus on Gut Health

Incorporate probiotics and prebiotics into your diet to support a healthy gut microbiome and improve digestion.

Food Allergy

A food allergy is an abnormal immune system response to specific proteins found in certain foods. The differences of food intolerance from food allergy is significant, as food allergies involve the immune system and can cause severe, even life-threatening reactions, whereas food intolerances primarily result from the digestive system’s inability to process certain food components and are usually less severe.

Common Causes

Food allergies occur when the immune system mistakenly identifies specific proteins in food as harmful, triggering an allergic reaction. Understanding the differences of food intolerance from food allergy is crucial for managing dietary choices and health.

Some common causes of food allergy include:

  1. Peanuts

An allergy to proteins found in peanuts can cause symptoms, from mild to severe. “There has been a lot of research on peanut allergy because it is often severe, lifelong, and has a huge impact on quality of life,” explains Dr. Scott Sicherer

  1. Tree Nuts

An allergy to proteins in tree nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and cashews, often causing similar symptoms to peanut allergies.

  1. Shellfish

An allergy to proteins in shellfish, including shrimp, crab, and lobster, can trigger allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.

  1. Fish

An allergy to proteins found in various fish species, leading to immune system reactions in affected individuals.

  1. Milk

An allergy to protein in cow’s milk is distinct from lactose intolerance and can cause immune system reactions.

  1. Eggs

An allergy to proteins in eggs, particularly in the egg white, can result in allergic reactions.

  1. Soy

An allergy to proteins in soybeans and soy products can provoke immune system responses.

  1. Wheat

An allergy to proteins in wheat, which is different from gluten sensitivity or intolerance and can trigger immune system reactions.

Common Symptoms of Food Allergy

The symptoms of food allergies can vary greatly and can be potentially life-threatening, making it crucial to understand the differences of food intolerance from food allergy. Food allergies involve the immune system, and their symptoms can appear rapidly after exposure to the allergen.

Common symptoms of food allergies include:

  1. Hives

Raised, red, itchy skin rash that can appear suddenly after exposure to an allergen.

  1. Swelling

The swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat can cause difficulty breathing or swallowing.

  1. Abdominal Pain

Pain or discomfort in the abdomen, often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or diarrhoea.

  1. Wheezing

Whistling sound when breathing due to narrowed airways, often caused by an allergic reaction.

  1. Anaphylaxis

A severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction can cause rapid onset of symptoms, including difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, and loss of consciousness.

Managing Food Allergy

Recognising the differences of food intolerance from food allergy is essential for properly managing food allergies. Here are some tips for avoiding allergens and carrying emergency medication:

  1. Read Food Labels Carefully

Always check ingredient labels for allergens and be aware of alternative names, such as “casein” for milk protein.

  1. Be cautious When Dining Out

Inform restaurant staff about your food allergy and ask about ingredients and preparation methods to avoid cross-contamination.

  1. Carry Emergency Medication

If you have a severe food allergy, always carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) and other prescribed emergency medications.

  1. Wear Medical Identification

Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace indicating your food allergy to ensure prompt and appropriate treatment in an emergency.

  1. Create a Food Allergy Action Plan

Work with your healthcare provider to develop a plan outlining how to manage your food allergy and what to do in case of accidental exposure.

  1. Stay Up-to-date on the Latest Research

Keep informed about new treatments, allergy-friendly products, and advancements in food allergy research to help manage your condition effectively.

Food Intolerance vs Food Allergy

It is pivotal to understand the differences of food intolerance from food allergy to ensure appropriate measures for management and treatment. Here, we present a comparative table that delineates the key distinctions, such as cause, symptoms, prevalence, and treatments for both conditions.

Food IntoleranceFood Allergy
CauseEnzyme deficiency, sensitivity to food additivesImmune system reaction to food proteins
SymptomsDigestive problems, skin rashes, fatigue, migrainesHives, itching, swelling, difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis
Onset of SymptomsIt can be delayed, often several hours after eatingUsually immediately or within an hour of eating
PrevalenceQuite common, affecting up to 20% of the populationLess common, affecting approximately 5% of adults and 8% of children
TreatmentAvoidance of trigger foods, enzyme supplementsStrict avoidance of allergenic food, emergency medications such as epinephrine

In understanding the differences of food intolerance from food allergy, we note several crucial points. The cause of food intolerance typically lies in the digestive system’s inability to process certain food substances, whereas a food allergy involves an overactive immune system response to a food protein.

Another significant difference of food intolerance from food allergy is the timing and nature of symptoms. Food intolerance symptoms are often delayed and can be varied and less severe. In contrast, food allergy symptoms usually occur immediately or within an hour of eating the allergenic food and can be severe or life-threatening.

In terms of treatment, managing food intolerance involves dietary adjustments, such as avoiding trigger foods or taking enzyme supplements. On the other hand, the critical differences of food intolerance from food allergy in management lies in need for strict avoidance of allergenic food and emergency medications, such as epinephrine, in case of severe reactions.

Unravelling the Distinctions

Grasping the difference of food intolerance from food allergy is not merely academic. It has significant implications for those affected’s quality of life and health outcomes. A failure to distinguish between the two can lead to inappropriate management strategies, aggravating symptoms, and potentially risking health. The cornerstone of effectively managing these conditions rests on knowing their fundamental differences.

If you suspect you may have a food intolerance or allergy, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare provider. Self-diagnosis or treatment could lead to an oversimplification of issues or a lack of attention to potential health hazards. With professional help and a clear understanding of the difference of food intolerance from food allergy, you can make informed decisions about your diet and foster a healthier, more comfortable life.