What’s the Difference Between a Food Intolerance and Food Allergy?

The symptoms of a food intolerance and a food allergy can be similar, and therefore people can confuse the two. However, they are different and therefore you must familiarise yourself with how to identify and deal with food intolerances and food allergies.

What’s the Difference Between a Food Intolerance and Food Allergy?

Health & Safety Knowledge Base | Food Safety Training

Posted by: Morgan Rennie Published: Mon, 29 Jun 2020 Last Reviewed: Mon, 29 Jun 2020
What’s the Difference Between a Food Intolerance and Food Allergy?

The symptoms of a food intolerance and a food allergy can be similar, and therefore people can get confused between the two. The difference between the two is that food allergies create a response from the immune system, which can be life-threatening. A food intolerance creates unpleasant symptoms, which can be uncomfortable, but they aren't life-threatening. Therefore, it is important to know whether you have a food intolerance or a food allergy, to ensure you can prepare and deal with it properly.

A food intolerance

A food intolerance occurs when your body cannot digest a particular food properly, so part of the food remains in your digestive tract and irritates it, resulting in uncomfortable symptoms.

Symptoms of a food intolerance involve:

  • Bloating, which can be very uncomfortable and make you very gassy.
  • Stomach-ache, such as painful cramps.
  • Vomiting, with preceding nausea.
  • Skin rash, which can itch.

To find out which foods you are intolerant to, keep a food diary to note down which foods create the above symptoms. Then cut these identified foods out of your diet and analyse when the symptoms occur. There are some common types of food which can irritate the body and cause a food intolerance, such as:

Lactose: Dairy products, such as milk and yoghurt.

Gluten: Bread, pasta and crackers.

Caffeine: Tea and coffee.

What’s the Difference Between a Food Intolerance and Food Allergy?

A food allergy

A food allergy occurs when the body's immune system reacts to a specific food. The immune system reacts to proteins in food because they characterise them as harmful. Therefore, a food allergy starts almost immediately after food has entered the body and the immune system has reacted. Immediate medical attention is required because the symptoms can be life-threatening.

Common food allergies include:

  • Peanuts
  • Tree Nuts: Pine Nuts, Almonds, Pistachios.
  • Fish
  • Shellfish: Prawns, Shrimp, Lobster, Squid.
  • Dairy products: Milk, Cheese, Yoghurt, Cream.
  • Wheat.
  • Soy.

The symptoms of a food allergy can include:

  • Anaphylaxis: This becomes severe very quickly and involves difficulty with breathing, a fast heartbeat and collapsing.
  • Swelling of the tongue, mouth or face
  • Throat begins to swell and itch
  • Lips begin to swell and itch
  • Skin becomes red and itchy, a rash might appear
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Vomiting
  • Hives
  • Diarrhoea
  • Low blood pressure

To treat an allergic reaction, you can use antihistamine tablets for mild reactions, or adrenaline for severe allergic reactions, such as an anaphylactic shock. Adrenaline can be used in the form of an EpiPen, which is an auto-injector of adrenaline that will narrow the blood vessels and help to control the individual's breathing. An ambulance must also be called.

It is important for those in restaurants and food businesses to accommodate for food intolerances and food allergies. Therefore, restaurants must make a conscious effort to highlight where food intolerances and food allergies occur on their menu. They must also explicitly ask customers if they have any particular food intolerances or food allergies which the staff and chefs need to be aware of.

In April 2017, Owen Carey, who was allergic to dairy, died after an allergic reaction in a Byron Burger restaurant, after the restaurant assured him that his meal was safe to consume. Owen ate a chicken burger which had been marinated in buttermilk, and consequently he sadly experienced an anaphylactic reaction.

The restaurant menu did not highlight any ingredients which could lead to an allergic reaction, and even after Owen told the staff about his allergy, he was not informed that the meal included buttermilk. There is a current drive to change legislation around food allergies to ensure situations like this cannot happen again.

Therefore, understanding food intolerances and food allergies is important for those who have them and those who work in the food business industry.

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