Key Difference Among Food Allergies Versus Food Intolerance Versus Food Sensitivity

Key Difference Among Food Allergies Versus Food Intolerance Versus Food Sensitivity

Definition of Food Allergy

A food allergy is your immune system’s response to food allergens in foods that cause allergic reactions in your body. According to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), 4% of all adults have some form of food allergy.

Your immune system makes specialized proteins called antibodies, which help detect potential threats to your body and release chemicals to stop them. However, in most cases of food allergies, an antibody called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) mistakenly targets a protein in your food source, releasing chemical called histamine that causes typical allergy symptoms.

When you are exposed to a food allergen, the reaction will be almost immediate and will happen every time you eat something you are allergic to.
While any food can cause an allergic reaction, the top 9 types of foods or food groups that cause allergic reactions the most are peanuts; nuts; soy; milk, eggs; cereals; Seafood; fish; and sesame.

Food allergies can be fatal, unlike food intolerance or sensitivity. In extreme cases, ingestion or even contact with a small amount of the allergen can cause a severe reaction.

Symptoms of Food Allergy Include:

  • Skin reactions, such as hives, swelling and itching
  • Anaphylaxis, including difficulty breathing, wheezing, dizziness and death
    digestive symptoms
  • Eight foods account for 90% of allergic reactions: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soybeans.
  • There are also non-IGE food allergies. These reactions occur when other parts of the immune system are activated in addition to IGE antibodies.

Symptoms of non-IGE reactions are usually delayed and occur mainly in the gastrointestinal tract. They include vomiting, diarrhoea, or bloating. Little is known about this reaction and, in general, this type of reaction is not life threatening.

Food Allergies Are on the Increase

Allergies in general are on the increase worldwide and food allergies have also become more common, particularly peanut allergy in preschool children. About 60% of allergies appear within the first year of life. Cow’s milk allergy is one of the most common in early childhood. Most children leave it before entering school.

Allergy Can Be Inherited

Children with a family member suffering from allergic diseases (including asthma or eczema) have a 20 to 40% higher risk of developing allergies. If there are at least two family members with allergic diseases, the risk increases by 50-80%.

Most of the time, children with food allergies do not have allergic parents. However, if a family has a child with a food allergy, their siblings have a slightly higher risk of having a food allergy themselves, although that risk is still relatively low.

Allergy Is an Immune Response

Allergies are an overreaction of the body’s immune system to a protein. These proteins can come from food, pollen, house dust, animal hair or mould. They are called allergens. The word allergy means that the immune system reacts to a harmless substance as if it were poisonous.

How to Test

1. Food Allergies

You can test and treat common food allergies in young children as 4 months. A raised bump usually means there is an allergic reaction.

2. Blood Test

A food allergy blood test detects and measures the amount of specific allergen antibodies in the blood. We send your blood sample to an external laboratory for analysis, which usually takes 12 weeks. The lab then sends the results to your specialists to aspirate the allergy and sinuses.

3. Oral Feeding Test

If a skin or blood test is inconclusive, we may recommend an oral feeding test. This test plans to eat or drink small portions of a food in increasing quantities.

How Can One Treat Food Allergies?

Many people have successfully treated food allergies with oral immunotherapy (OTI). Over 80% of patients can eat foods that previously threatened their health within 6 months of OIT treatment.

Much like the oral dietary challenge, an OIT patient is given small amounts of a food to decrease his sensitivity. This dose increases gradually over about 6 months.

Since the OIT involves the use of allergenic foods, there is a risk of anaphylaxis. Our staff closely supervises all OIT patients, and all treatments and tests are supervised by a certified allergist.

The OIT process has four steps:

1. Initial Dose

Patients receive 7-13 doses in a single day over a 46-hour period, under physician supervision.

2. Cumulative Dose

This dose is gradually increased every 12 weeks under observation until the maintenance dose is reached. This process usually takes around 6 months.

3. Maintenance Dosage

As recommended by physician, doses are taken daily for years. With maintenance doses, patients gain long-term stamina and the ability to consume foods that previously threatened their health.

Definition of Food Intolerance

A food intolerance, also known as a food sensitivity, is a gastrointestinal reaction to certain foods. It is not caused by changes in the immune system. Reactions do not occur immediately and may take hours or even days for reactions to occur.

Common food intolerances include lactose or milk, gluten, wheat, certain fruits, and vegetables. For example, people who lack the enzyme lactase which helps break down sugars in dairy products have lactose intolerance, which can cause various gastrointestinal problems. Similarly, gluten is a protein found in cereals. such as wheat and barley and is known to cause certain food intolerance conditions.

If you have a food intolerance, you may be able to eat small amounts of foods that cause reactions without too much trouble.

Food Intolerance Is a Chemical Reaction

Food intolerance is a chemical reaction that some people have after eating or drinking certain foods; it is not an immune response. Food intolerance has been linked to asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Basic Symptoms of Food Intolerance

  • Nervousness
  • Tremor
  • Sweating
  • Palpitations
  • Rapid Breathing
  • Headache, Migraine
  • Diarrhoea
  • Burning Sensations on The Skin
  • Tightness Across the Face And Chest
  • Breathing Problems – Asthma-Like Symptoms
  • Allergy-Like Reactions.

What Do You Mean by Food Sensitivities?

Food sensitivities are not life threatening. Explain that there are food intolerances that are not immune mediated. Instead, they’re caused by the inability to process or digest a food. 

Food sensitivities and intolerances are more common than food allergies, according to the British Allergy Foundation. Neither involves the immune system. 

A food triggers an intolerance in your digestive tract. This is where your body fails to break it down properly, or your body reacts to a food that you are sensitive to. For example, lactose intolerance occurs when your body fails to break down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. 

You may be sensitive or intolerant to a food for certain reasons. These include not having the right enzymes needed to digest a particular food reactions to food additives or preservatives such as sulfites, MSG or artificial colours Pharmacological factors, such as sensitivity to caffeine or others chemicals sensitivity to sugars found naturally in certain foods such as onions, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts.

Symptoms of food sensitivity vary. But the symptoms of intolerance are all digestive related. These can include:

  • Gas and bloating
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Cramping
  • Nausea

Difference Between Food Allergies and Food Intolerance

The main difference between a food intolerance (or sensitivity) and a food allergy is the reaction. Reaction time and symptoms may also differ. Food allergies usually trigger reactions faster than sensitivities.

How Do You Know if You Have a Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

A study found that 1 in 3 people report a food allergy, although only 1 in 20 do. This stems from a lack of understanding of the clinical nuances of food allergy and intolerance. Some even confuse normal reactions to food with an allergy.

There are ways to tell if you have a food allergy or intolerance. The three types of tests used to determine your condition are skin test, serum specific IgE test, and oral food test.

Do not attempt bench or home test kits. Consult your doctor and plan, based on your medical history and current health, to find out exactly if you have a food allergy or intolerance.

How Are Treatments and Diets Different for Food Allergy and Food Intolerance?

Talk to your doctor and eliminate all foods that can cause allergies or intolerances from your diet.

If you’re not sure which food is causing the problem, try an elimination diet, a meal plan that eliminates the most common foods that can cause allergic reactions or intolerances.

If you already know that you have a food allergy, always take your antiallergic medications with you and specify which foods or derivatives you cannot eat when eating out, at events, or on invitations.

Finding the Allergen

When symptoms appear within minutes of eating a certain food, identifying the allergen becomes an easy task. However, if the cause is unknown, diagnostic tests may be needed, such as:

  • Keeping a food and symptom diary to check for trends
  • Removing any suspicious foods for two weeks and then reintroducing them one at a time anaphylaxis). This should only be done under medical supervision.
  • Prick skin tests using food extracts
  • Allergy blood tests.

Prevention of Food Allergies in Children

Prevention of allergies in children is an active area of ​​research. Results to date indicate that:

  • Prenatal- There is no conclusive evidence that avoiding allergens during pregnancy will help prevent allergies in the postnatal baby.
  • Exclusive breastfeeding for four or six early months appear to protect against the development of allergies in infancy. It is recommended to introduce solid foods (including those considered to be allergenic) around six months (but not before four months), preferably while continuing to breastfeed.
  • Breastfeeding – Try to avoid any food (including foods considered to be highly allergens) by a woman while breastfeeding is not recommended.
  • Soy formula – Studies have shown that the use of soy formula does not prevent the development of allergies in babies.

Partially vaccine infant formula hydrolyzed (commonly known as HA infant formula) is not recommended for preventing the development of food allergies.

Severe Allergic Reactions to Foods Can Be Life Threatening

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that needs urgent medical attention. Foods (such as peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, wheat, milk, and eggs), insect bites and stings and some medicines are the most common allergens that cause anaphylaxis.

Within minutes of exposure to the allergen, the person can have potentially life-threatening symptoms, which may include:

  • Difficult or noisy breathing
  • Swelling of the tongue
  • Swelling or tightness in the throat
  • Difficulty talking
  • Hoarse voice
  • Wheeze
  • Persistent cough
  • Persistent dizziness or collapse
  • Becoming pale and floppy (in young children).

Several factors can affect the severity of anaphylaxis, including exercise, heat, alcohol, the amount of food eaten, and the way food is prepared and consumed.  To avoid serious injury or death, a person with anaphylaxis needs an injection of epinephrine (epinephrine).


Frankly, food allergies are common among kids. The change in diet and the day-to-day modifications in one’s lifestyle lead to changes in the amount of nutrient one consumes.

Plus, not to forget the lack of physical exercises that one follows. All these factors can make one lazy and ensure that the body rejects some of the major nutrients. When such situations do come around, it becomes difficult for certain people to have delicacies and they would always need to have before-hand knowledge about the ingredients of the food stuffs they consume.

Well, knowing what is there in your food is a great thing; still at times you might not be able to enjoy the food that has a pleasant taste due the essence of the ingredient that might be not good for you. However, you do can enjoy the ones made from the substitute ingredient, but one won’t get the feeling of the awesome taste that your taste buds would want and enjoy.

Whatever the reason it is, still it is often better to consult the doctors just before you consume any food items and make sure to follow their instructions to be on the safer side.


Saravavan Nadarajan (Vanan)

Vanan, fitness expert and leader at EzFit Singapore, specializes in holistic training—home-based, boot camps, and corporate fitness—with over a decade of industry experience.

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