Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerance/Sensitivities

Kara Bauer Health Guide
  • Those who have food allergies are usually quite aware of them due to the acute symptoms that occur after their consumption. However, with food sensitivities or intolerances (lactose, gluten, etc.), it can be a little bit more difficult to connect the (usually) much milder symptoms to a specific food or food additive. Yet food sensitivities unknowingly affect a much larger number of people than allergies do, which once identified and controlled, can change one’s health for the better almost immediately.


    To understand the difference, food allergies involve an immune reaction whereas food sensitivities and intolerances do not. When the body is allergic to a food, it identifies the food molecules as being potentially harmful and toxic and releases antibodies that attach to each of the cells. The next time the food is consumed, the antibodies instruct the cells to release chemicals such as histamine, which produce allergy symptoms. Symptoms are typically localized in areas such as the nose, throat, lungs, skin and GI tract and include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloody stools, skin rashes, runny nose, wheezing, hives, difficult breathing and trouble with swallowing, The majority of food allergies are related to the consumption of milk, eggs, peanuts (legume), soy, wheat, shellfish and tree nuts. Whereas food intolerances and sensitivities are something you are typically born with, food allergies can come up and go throughout life (especially in the case of children who can outgrow them more easily than adults).[1] Symptoms also vary depending on the type of allergy, age, amount of food consumed, whether the food is cooked or raw, stress levels, overall immune system health, etc.[2]

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    Food intolerances or sensitivities occur when the body has problems digesting a particular food as it travels down the intestinal tract. Symptoms are usually related to digestion and mental wellbeing and include gas, bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, anxiety and migraines. For this reason and the fact that symptomatic response can be delayed for up to 2 days, many food intolerances go undiagnosed. Typical food intolerances include lactose, gluten, tyramine, and food preservatives/additives.[2] In the case of lactose intolerance, which affects 1 in 10 people[1], the body doesn’t produce enough lactase, the enzyme needed for the digestion of cow’s milk. A gluten intolerance can also produce uncomfortable digestive problems and interfere with the absorption of nutrients. Tyramine, an amino acid like molecule, can also produce symptoms. This molecule is found in foods such as fermented cheese, chocolate, red wine, beer, avocados and others. There has also been evidence suggesting that migraine headaches may be the result of a tyramine intolerance, which can interfere with the functioning of the brain. Onion, brussel sprouts, garlic, and broccoli can help buffer the affects of tyramine.[2] It is also fairly common to have a food sensitivity to food preservatives and additives. Sulfites, flavoring agents, MSG, yellow dye number 5 and others can all cause adverse reactions.


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    Food allergies and intolerances are often tested via a blood or skin prick test. However, results are not always accurate or conclusive. Most experts agree that the best way to determine if you have a food allergy or intolerance is to first keep a food diary and later adhere to an elimination diet test. While keeping the food journal, look for symptomatic patterns related to those foods consumed on a regular basis (daily or multiple times per week). Ironically, the foods we crave can be the very foods we’re having a negative reaction to. The next step is to try eliminating a particular food (one at a time) for a minimum of 5 days and then slowly add it back in to see how your body reacts. Although this can take time, it is a very effective way of identifying the culprit of bothersome symptoms, which otherwise might remain mysterious even with a doctor’s consultation/testing.


    [1] (n.d.) Retrieved from


    [2] (n.d.) Retrieved from


Published On: April 28, 2013