Food Allergy Vs Food Intolerance: Here’s What Most People Don’t Know

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What is the difference?

Food Intolerance

Physical reactions to certain foods are common, but most are caused by a food intolerance rather than a food allergy. Food intolerance can cause some of the same signs and symptoms as a food allergy, so people often confuse the two.

Food sensitivities and intolerances are more common than food allergies. While these adults may actually believe they have a food allergy, the symptoms they reported were not reflective of true allergic reactions. Most likely, they were experiencing other unwelcome symptoms—like diarrhea, abdominal pain, or bloating—from a food sensitivity or intolerance.

A young woman uses her hands holding a glass of milk while she is a bad stomach ache. She has bad lactose intolerance and unhealthy problems with dairy food products

You may be sensitive or intolerant to a food for a few reasons. These include:

  • Not having the right enzymes you need to digest a certain food
  • Reactions to food additives or preservatives like sulfites, MSG, or artificial colors
  • Pharmacological factors, like sensitivity to caffeine or other chemicals
  • Sensitivity to the sugars naturally found in certain foods like onions, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts

Food Allergy

Food allergy symptoms are caused by an immune system response; symptoms of intolerances or sensitivities are not.
A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body.

The reaction to this faulty immune response leads to symptoms like:

  • Skin reactions, like hives, swelling, and itching
  • Anaphylaxis, including difficulty breathing, wheezing, dizziness, and death
  • Digestive symptoms
A woman scratching the itch on her hand because of a food allergy

In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems.

Eight foods account for 90 percent of allergic reactions: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soybeans.

Advice: If you have a reaction after eating a particular food, see the doctor to determine whether you have a food intolerance or a food allergy. Because if you have a food allergy, you may be at risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) — even if past reactions have been mild.

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Reference: Health Magazine, What’s the Difference Between a Food Allergy and Food Intolerance? Here’s What Most Americans Don’t Know

MayoClinic, Food allergy vs. food intolerance: What’s the difference?

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