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Do You Suffer From Food Allergies or Food Intolerance?

Woman with dairy allergy on color background.

Food allergies refer to a set of pathological immune system responses. An allergy happens when the immune system mistakes a particular harmless component of food or the environment as a potential invader. The body prepares to defend itself and fight against the ingredient. The result or allergic reaction is the consequence of your immune system battling the “harmful” protein or dust particle. 

But not all reactions to food are due to allergies. Food intolerance refers to a fault in your digestive system. When you are unable to break down or digest some element of the food, it is referred to as an intolerance. Keep reading to find out which of the two are bothering you.

Food Allergies and the Immune System

When your immune system fails to recognize a protein in a food item as harmless, it begins to produce antibodies to combat the misidentified invader. These antibodies are called Immunoglobulin E. Once the antibodies are ready, your system will attack this protein.

Young woman suffers from choking and cough from food allergies after eating peanut.
The Severity Of Food Allergies Ranges From Mild To Severe, They Can Be Life-Threatening (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Over time, your body becomes used to combating such proteins. The antibodies lie in wait. The moment you ingest a food item with the same protein, your immune system immediately remembers, activates the antibodies, and releases certain chemicals, like histamine, into your bloodstream.

Histamine is one of the main causes of inflammation. It travels to every part of your body, including your lungs, digestive system, and skin. If you’ve ever experienced itchiness due to food allergies, then you know it was histamine’s doing.

While the severity of food allergies ranges from mild to severe, they can be life-threatening, according to experts. If you’ve ever experienced an allergic reaction immediately after ingesting a small quantity of food, you need to talk with your physician. Exposure to a small quantity of an allergen can sometimes cause anaphylaxis which is a serious and systematic allergic reaction. It can occur either on the spot or take a few hours to develop. In anaphylaxis, your body produces large quantities of histamine rapidly. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • Shortness of breath that becomes worse over time
  • Wheezing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rashes or hives
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Rapid fall in blood pressure
  • Anxiety
  • Swelling or lump in your throat

Other common symptoms related to food allergies are:

  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Itchiness
  • Tingling or itchiness in your mouth

Some of the most prevalent food allergens in the United States, as identified by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), are milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, soybean, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat. Some people have allergic reactions to food additives as well.

The main cause of food allergies is the intake of the above-mentioned food allergens.

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is related to the digestive system. So its symptoms take relatively longer to appear and after a substantial amount has been ingested. The body fails to digest a certain food due to lack of a related enzyme, irritable bowel syndrome, or sensitivity to certain chemicals. Celiac disease, a combination of gastrointestinal problems with fever and headaches, and recurring stress are also common causes of food intolerance.

Woman rejecting a glass of milk offered by another person due to being lactose intolerant.
The body Fails To Digest A Certain Food Due To Lack Of A Related Enzyme (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Symptoms of food intolerance are quite similar to those of food allergies. The only difference is that they’re more gut-centric and are usually not life-threatening. Food intolerance symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Gas
  • Stomach pain
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritability

People with food intolerance experience symptoms after eating any of the following:

  • Milk. The most common type of food intolerance is lactose intolerance. Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk and dairy products such as yogurt and cheese. The prevalence of lactose intolerance has sparked the debate about whether milk is good or bad.
  • Sulfites and other preservatives. They’re found naturally in some foods such as red wine and are used for preservation in others. Using spray-on sulfites for the preservation of fruits and vegetables has been banned by the FDA.
  • Food colorings. Some people are highly sensitive to dyes used in candies and sodas. 
  • Gluten. Celiac disease, as mentioned before, is a severe form of gluten intolerance. Gluten is a naturally occurring protein, present in barley, wheat, and rye.
  • Caffeine. One of the most addicting components of our daily diet is caffeine. People with caffeine sensitivity face anxiety, restlessness, headaches, and insomnia.
  • Monosodium glutamate or MSG. It usually causes heart palpitations and headaches in some sensitive people. It is found in all kinds of foods, including soups and processed meat.

Food intolerance can either be due to naturally occurring substances or toxins and artificial preservatives.

Diagnosis of Food Allergies and Food Intolerance

Food sensitivity tests are a popular method for diagnosing food allergies and food intolerance. However, their reliability is questionable. They only provide hints about the causes of certain symptoms and do not pinpoint which allergies the patient has.

Man reading label carefully before buying in shop.
Read Food Labels Before Buying Anything (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Diagnosis begins with questions about your symptom history as well as family history. You will be asked specific questions related to your diet, what you ate before the symptoms appeared, the quantity of the food, and how much time passed before the onset of symptoms.

Blood tests are usually conducted to find out which food-related IgE antibodies are present in your body. The skin prick test is another type of diagnosis tool in which a standard amount of the extracts of each food is placed on the arm, and the skin is slightly pierced to allow the droplets to interact with your immune system. The allergist remains on the lookout for redness, swelling, or itching.

Food sensitivity tests are time-consuming, and the results can take one to two weeks. It is also costly and ineffective most of the time. Therefore, if you experience any of the aforementioned symptoms, you should monitor what you eat strictly. 

After finding out what allergens you are sensitive to, your best bet is prevention. Read food labels before buying anything. Make sure your colleagues, friends, and family know about your allergies so that they can help you in case of an emergency. For food intolerances, make sure to eat healthy, bloat reducing foods.

You might be wondering what to do if you have a reaction. If you have symptoms immediately after eating something, stop eating it. Use over-the-counter antihistamines to treat itching and hives. If you experience any symptom of anaphylaxis such as chest pain, shortness of breath, or a rapid fall in blood pressure, seek medical care immediately.


Food allergies and food intolerances have similar symptoms but are two different problems. Allergies are caused by a flaw in your immune system while intolerance is caused by digestive issues. Both are characterized by nausea, itching or hives, and abdominal cramps. Food intolerance appears thirty or more minutes after consuming certain foods while food allergy symptoms may occur immediately after consuming a small number of allergens and can be life-threatening. Diagnosis of both issues is difficult, and the best solution is prevention.