Difference between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance

by | Jul 11, 2023 | Blog, Difference between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance

Understanding the Difference between food allergies and food intolerances is essential for individuals who experience adverse reactions after consuming certain foods. While both conditions may share similar symptoms, their underlying mechanisms and long-term implications differ significantly. In this article, we will explore the key differences between food allergies and food intolerances, shedding light on their causes, symptoms, diagnostic approaches, and management strategies.

Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance

Difference between food allergy and intolerance are often confused due to their overlapping symptoms. However, it is crucial to differentiate between the two, as they involve distinct biological mechanisms and require different management approaches. Let’s explore each condition in detail.

What Are Food Allergies?

Food Allergy

Food allergies are immune-mediated responses triggered by specific proteins in certain foods. When an individual with a food allergy consumes an allergenic food, their immune system mistakenly identifies the protein as harmful and initiates an immune response, releasing chemicals such as histamine. The immune response can cause various symptoms throughout the body.

Causes and Immune Response

Food allergies are primarily caused by an overactive immune system that identifies harmless proteins as threats. Common food allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, eggs, milk, soy, wheat, and certain fruits. When exposed to these allergens, the immune system produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which bind to mast cells and basophils. Upon subsequent exposure, the allergenic protein triggers the release of histamine and other chemicals, leading to allergic symptoms

Common Symptoms

Food allergy symptoms can manifest within minutes to hours after consuming the allergenic food. Common symptoms include hives, itching, swelling (especially around the lips, face, tongue, and throat), difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and in severe cases, anaphylaxis—a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Diagnosis and Testing

To diagnose the difference between food allergy and intolerance, a healthcare professional may conduct a thorough medical history review, and physical examination, and recommend specific tests such as skin prick tests or blood tests. These tests measure the presence of IgE antibodies specific to allergenic foods and can help identify the allergens causing the allergic reaction.

Treatment and Management

The primary treatment for food allergies is strict avoidance of allergenic food. In case of accidental exposure or mild allergic reactions, antihistamines may and Morning Miracle mix can be used to relieve symptoms. However, in cases of severe allergic reactions or anaphylaxis, prompt administration of epinephrine (adrenaline) using an autoinjector is crucial. Individuals with food allergies are often advised to carry an epinephrine autoinjector at all times. It is also essential for them to educate themselves, their families, and caregivers about their condition and emergency response procedures.

What Is Food Intolerance?

Food intolerance, also known as non-allergic food hypersensitivity, refers to difficulty digesting or processing certain foods, often due to enzyme deficiencies or sensitivities to food components. Unlike food allergies, which involve an immune response, food intolerances primarily involve the digestive system.

Causes and Mechanisms

Food intolerances can result from various factors, including enzyme deficiencies, such as lactose intolerance due to insufficient lactase enzyme, or sensitivities to food components, such as histamine intolerance or sensitivity to food additives. In these cases, the body has difficulty breaking down or processing certain substances, leading to digestive symptoms.

Common Symptoms

Food intolerance symptoms typically appear gradually and are localized to the digestive system. Common symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and indigestion. Unlike food allergies, food intolerances do not involve a systemic immune response or life-threatening reactions like anaphylaxis.

Diagnosis and Testing

Diagnosing food intolerances can be challenging, as there are no definitive medical tests like those used for food allergies. Healthcare professionals often rely on a combination of medical history, elimination diets, and food diaries to identify problem foods and assess symptom patterns. In some cases, specific tests, such as lactose intolerance tests or breath tests, may be recommended to confirm certain intolerances.

Treatment and Management

The primary approach to managing food intolerances is avoiding or minimizing exposure to problematic foods. This may involve eliminating specific foods or food groups from the diet and monitoring symptom triggers. In certain cases, enzyme supplements or medications may be prescribed to aid digestion or alleviate symptoms. Individuals with food intolerances need to work closely with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to ensure a balanced and nutrient-rich diet while avoiding trigger foods.

Key Differences Between Food Allergies and Food Intolerances

While the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy share some similarities in terms of symptoms and dietary restrictions, there are key differences between the two conditions:

Immunological Response

Food allergies involve an immune system response triggered by allergenic proteins, leading to the production of IgE antibodies and the release of histamine and other chemicals. Food intolerances, on the other hand, primarily involve digestive system difficulties and do not invoke an immune response.

Severity of Reactions

Food allergies can range from mild to severe, with the potential for life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. In contrast, food intolerances typically cause milder symptoms that are localized to the digestive system and do not pose immediate life-threatening risks.

Potential Long-Term Implications

While both conditions can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life, food allergies generally require stricter avoidance measures due to the risk of severe reactions. In some cases, children may outgrow certain food allergies. Food intolerances, however, often persist throughout life, although symptom management and tolerance levels may vary.


Understanding the difference between food allergies and food intolerances is crucial for proper diagnosis, management, and quality of life for individuals experiencing adverse reactions to certain foods. While food allergies involve an immune response and can cause severe reactions, food intolerances primarily affect the digestive system and result in milder symptoms. Proper diagnosis, avoidance of trigger foods, and working with healthcare professionals are key for effectively managing both conditions and maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.


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