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Food Allergy vs Food Intolerance: Understanding the Difference

Food allergy and food intolerance are commonly confused with each other. While food allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to a food negatively which is usually harmless, whereas food intolerance occurs when the body has a chemical reaction to eating a particular food or drink.

Aarushi Chadha
Food Allergy
Food intolerance can be inconvenient, however, it is not life-threatening as some food allergies can be

Food allergy refers to an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. While there is no cure for food allergies, some people outgrow their allergies as they get older. Food allergies can be triggered by even the tiniest amount of triggering food items and can rapidly show signs and symptoms such as digestive problems, hives, or swollen airways.

Symptoms of food allergies:

The symptoms of mild to moderate food allergy include:

  • Hives or welts

  • Abdominal pain

  • Vomiting

  • Tingling in the mouth

  • Swelling of eyes, face, and lips

The symptoms of severe food allergy:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Swelling or tightness in the throat

  • Wheezing or persistent cough

  • Pale and floppy

  • Persistent dizziness or collapse

  • Difficulty talking or hoarse voice

Causes of food allergies:

You become allergic to a food item when your immune system starts mistakenly identifying that food item or a substance in the food as something harmful. Therefore, as soon as you eat a food item that you are allergic to, your immune system responds to that by releasing an antibody known as immunoglobulin E to neutralize the allergy-causing food or food substance.

Common food allergies:

  1. Egg allergy- It might not seem that way but egg allergy is an extremely common food allergy among children. It is also an allergy that many people outgrow as they grow older. Egg allergy can trigger stomach aches, rash, hives, or respiratory problems.

  2. Tree nut allergies- Tree nut allergies are a common food allergy that affects up to 3% of the population worldwide. People with a tree nut allergy are unable to consume the nuts and will also be allergic to their butter and oils. Some tree nuts include pistachios, pine nuts, cashews, almonds, and walnuts.

  3. Shellfish allergies- Seafood allergies are triggered in our body by proteins present in the shellfish, such as kinase, parvalbumin, and tropomyosin. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, and stomach pain.

Understanding Food Intolerances:

Unlike food allergies, food intolerance or food sensitivity occurs when our body is intolerant, sensitive to, or simply can’t break down certain food problems, thereby, affecting our digestive system. Food intolerance can be inconvenient, however, it is not life-threatening as some food allergies can be.

When our body is intolerant to a certain food, it has a hard time digesting it. Eating such foods can lead to uncomfortable symptoms like gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea. These symptoms can take hours to appear as the food makes its way through the digestive tract. In some cases, no symptoms may appear after eating a small amount of food.

Symptoms of food intolerances:

  • Sweating

  • Diarrhoea

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Burning sensations on the skin

  • Headache and migraine

  • Rapid breathing

  • Heart palpitation

  • Tremor

  • Nervousness

Causes of food intolerance:

  • Food intolerance can be caused by the absence of an enzyme that is needed to fully digest that food or drink.

  • Food intolerance can be caused by sensitivity to food additives. For instance, sulphites used to preserve certain food items can trigger asthma attacks in people who are intolerant to them.

  • Food intolerance is caused by irritable bowel syndrome, which leads to constipation, diarrhoea, and cramping.

Common food intolerances:

  1. Lactose intolerance- Lactose is a type of sugar that is naturally found in dairy products. Our body breaks down lactose with the help of a digestive enzyme known as lactase. Shortage of the lactase enzymes leads to our body’s inability to digest lactose. Lactose intolerance is extremely common and can lead to bloating, nausea, gas, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain. People with lactose intolerance find it easier to digest aged cheeses and other fermented dairy products because they contain less lactose.

  2. Caffeine intolerance- Caffeine is a stimulant that increases alertness and reduces fatigue. It is found in a variety of beverages. People who are hypersensitive to caffeine will experience insomnia, restlessness, nervousness, jitters, anxiety, and rapid heartbeat when they consume a caffeinated beverage.

  3. Sulfites- Sulfites are chemical additives that are used as a preservative in foods and drinks. Foods containing sulfites can trigger a variety of symptoms in people who are sensitive to them. For instance, it can cause asthma, swelling of the skin, flushing, wheezing, and coughing.

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