Is It a Food Allergy or an Intolerance?

Written by Optimity Team

(3 min read)

Let’s say your child drinks a glass of milk and develops a tummy ache. Do they possibly have a food allergy? Or maybe it’s an intolerance? Despite the confusion between these terms in popular culture, there is actually a difference between food allergies and food intolerances.

Food allergies involve the immune system. It occurs when the body’s immune system thinks a certain food is harmful and reacts by causing symptoms, such as hives, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea or swelling of the lips, tongue or throat. Symptoms range from mild to severe. In some cases, an allergic reaction to food can be life-threatening and these types of reactions are called anaphylaxis. About 7% of Canadians have self-reported having a food allergy.

Food intolerance does NOT involve the immune system. It occurs when you have problems digesting a certain food. Symptoms include nausea, upset stomach, diarrhea, gas and bloating leading to abdominal pain. Food intolerances are generally less serious than food allergies. Prevalence is difficult to establish and ranges from 2-20% of the population.

Common allergens:

In Canada, the most common food allergens are clearly marked on food labels. For example, an ingredient list might say: “contains peanuts and wheat”. This label information helps people with food allergies avoid items that contain these most common allergens:

  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Mustard
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc.)
  • Seafood (fish, shellfish, crustaceans)
  • Sesame
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Sulphites

Common intolerances:

You’ve probably heard of lactose intolerance, which is a reaction to the milk sugar called lactose found in most dairy products. This diagnosis means that your digestive system is low in the enzyme lactase, which is required to digest lactose in dairy foods. But it doesn’t mean milk needs to be eliminated – you just need the enzyme! You can take lactase enzyme pills before consuming dairy foods, or simply buy lactose-free milk (the enzyme is added to the milk to break down the lactose). 

Other food intolerances can include any food that makes you feel bloated, gassy or unwell. Some people are intolerant to food additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sulfites. People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be intolerant to specific foods that contain non-digestible sugars. These FODMAP foods are listed here.

Neither an allergy nor an intolerance:

Another common condition you’ve probably heard of is celiac disease, where the body’s small intestine is extremely sensitive to gluten. This gluten intolerance can lead to gastrointestinal issues like bloating, abdominal pain, constipation and more.

It’s important to note that celiac disease is neither an allergy nor an intolerance but in fact an autoimmune disease.

Which one is it?

People often confuse allergies and intolerances because they can have overlapping symptoms, especially digestive issues. It’s important to get a proper diagnosis for allergies or intolerances so you know how to avoid the triggers and treat the symptoms. 

Important note: Unfortunately, there are many fraudulent tests for allergies and intolerances, including IgG tests, that might provide a flawed diagnosis and encourage you to needlessly cut out foods. For allergy testing, see an allergist/immunologist for skin prick and IgE blood tests. For intolerances, consider working with a dietitian on an elimination diet, where you can identify trigger foods that cause your symptoms.

How do you deal with your food allergy or intolerance? Let us know in the comments below 👇

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