Difference Between Food Allergy And Food Intolerance

What Causes Food Allergy?

Allergy develops when your immune system fails to recognize a food ingredient as a nutrient and treats it instead as a foreign object. When the immune system identifies a foreign object as harmful, it will create antibodies to combat them. Foods that commonly cause allergies are eggs, milk, seafood, soy products, peanuts, almond, walnuts, pecans, and other tree nuts.

What Causes Food Intolerance?

Unlike food allergy, food intolerance is not an immune response. Rather it is a digestive system response that results when the stomach cannot properly digest or breakdown food. Many have intolerance to milk and other daily products owing to their lactose content.

What Are the Symptoms of Food Allergy?

Those with food allergy may suffer symptoms ranging from mild to severe. The amount of food needed to cause allergy differs from person to person. Typical symptoms of food allergy are:

  • Itchy skin
  • Hives or rash
  • Swollen airways
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Anaphylaxis

What Are the Symptoms of Food Intolerance?

Typical symptoms of food intolerance are:

  • Painful stomach
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating, gas, or cramps
  • Heartburn
  • Vomiting
  • Nervousness or irritability
  • Headache

How Prevalent Are Food Allergies and Intolerances?

It is estimated that 2 to 4% of the adult population and 6 to 8% of the children population suffer from food allergy. The incidence of food intolerance is higher. Almost everyone has at least experienced intolerance to a particular food. One of the most common food intolerance is lactose intolerance, which affects about 10% of the US population.

What Causes Food Allergies and Intolerance?

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Food allergy is caused by sensitivity to certain proteins or chemical compounds found in food. Allergy develops when the immune system identifies a protein as harmful. The initial response of the immune system to a foreign object deemed harmful is the production of antibodies called immunoglobulin E or IgE.  These antibodies are released along with histamine and other chemicals. Histamine can have adverse effects on respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular system, and skin.

Allergic symptoms manifest after the antibodies are released. Allergy symptoms vary depending on which part of body is targeted by histamine. Itchy ears, throat and nose mean that histamine is released in these areas. If histamine affects the skin, symptoms could be hives or rashes. If histamine is released in the stomach, abdominal pain, cramps, or diarrhea is to be expected.

People with food allergies have often relatives who are predisposed to such disorder, thus this condition can be inherited.

Food intolerance can be triggered by a number of factors. Sometimes, the body may lack enzymes necessary for thorough digestion of a particular protein. Intolerance can also be a response to chemical ingredients or food additives such as food coloring, spices, and preservatives. These ingredients contain dyes and monosodium glutamate.

Sulfite and salicylates can also cause digestion problems. Sulfites are naturally found in red wine and are used as food preservative. Aspirin and other salicylates belong to a family of plant chemicals naturally found in many fruits, vegetables, and alcoholic beverages. Aside from these chemicals, other food ingredients may trigger digestive problems if taken excessively.

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How to Distinguish Between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance

The amount of food needed to trigger allergy is less than the threshold limit for food intolerance. That’s why people with specific food allergies must totally avoid foods to which they are sensitive. On the other hand, food intolerance requires considerable intake of certain food before its symptoms manifest.  For instance, a person with lactose intolerance may feel no digestive problems after taking a glass of milk, but feels the symptoms when milk intake is increased to two glasses.

Food allergies and intolerances should not be mistaken for food poisoning, which is caused by spoiled or tainted food. To obtain accurate diagnosis and treatment, it is better to consult a doctor.

How Food Intolerance Is Diagnosed

Identifying foods that cause intolerances is mainly done through trial and error. Make a list of what you eat and determine the ingredients commonly found in those that you suspect are causing digestion problems.

Going on an elimination diet is another way to determine problem foods. Stop taking suspected foods until you are relieved from symptoms. Then bring back these foods into your regular diet so you can pinpoint which one is poorly tolerated by your stomach. Before going on an elimination diet, consult a registered dietitian who will assist you in planning a well-balanced diet.

How Food Intolerance Is Treated and Prevented

Avoid or reduce the consumption of problem foods. Manage the symptoms as soon as they arise.

Identifying problem foods and threshold levels is the key in preventing food intolerance. When dining out, ask a food attendant about the ingredients or additives used in the food you plan to order. Some of the ingredients to which you are sensitive may not be evident from menu description. Check food ingredients by looking at food labels. Also pay attention to condiments and seasonings for they may contain MSG and other additives.

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6 Responses

  1. Great info, very interesting. Rgds. Kenton Bruice MD

  2. Las Vegas says:

    Food intolerance usually causes “digestive irregularities”. Allergies usually cause sneezing and stuffy noses and then redness in the skin. Every case should be checked out by a doctor. Self diagnosis does not rule out diseases which mimic these symptoms.

  3. shilo says:

    That’s very interesting. I never knew why some people could be allergic to foods, but that totally makes sense.

  4. Food allergy is a rather fast response (minutes) by the body’s immune system to a perceived invader. Signs or symptoms are typically immediate, dramatic and visible: coughing, sneezing, vomiting, migraines, watering eyes, rashes, swelling tissue, hives while the food intolerance on the other hand is rather slow onset reaction, hours, days or even weeks. It is an inability to process a particular food.

  5. Thanks for sharing such informative message. We indeed should pay attention to those problems.

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