Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance. What’s the Difference?

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Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance. What’s the Difference?

In honour of Food Allergy Awareness month, I will address a very common question.  You may have asked yourself, what is the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?  These terms have important differences and must not be used interchangeably.

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What is a Food Allergy?

Food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system responds negatively to a specific food (known as the ‘allergen’).  The offending food is not necessarily harmful, as other people may be able to eat the food without reacting.  However, for those with food allergies, their immune system attacks the unwanted ‘allergen’ causing an immediate and possibly severe reaction.

Prevalence:  It is estimated by Health Canada that 5-6% of young children and 3-4% of adults have diagnosed food allergies.
Examples of Symptoms:  Tingling mouth, hives, swelling of lips, face, tongue and throat, vomiting, cramping or diarrhea.
Note: Symptoms range from mild to a life threatening reaction known as Anaphylaxis.
On-set of symptoms:  Usually immediate and tiny amount will trigger a reaction.
Examples of Food Allergies:  Peanut allergy, Egg allergy, Milk allergy, Soy allergy, Shellfish allergy, Celiac Disease (symptoms may be delayed and this is not life-threatening).
Diagnosis: Food Allergies are diagnosed by an Allergist (Clinical Immunologist) and involve blood and skin testing.



What is Food Intolerance?

This is a type of food sensitivity which occurs when the body has difficulty digesting certain foods leading to symptoms of pain or discomfort.  Please note, an allergic reaction is not involved with food intolerance since the immune system not involved.

Prevalence: Unknown
Examples of Symptoms:  Bloating, gas, cramping, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation.
On-set of symptoms:  Generally symptoms are delayed after food is consumed and a larger amount of the offending food is typically consumed to trigger symptoms.
Examples Food Intolerances:  Lactose intolerance (lack of enzyme to digest lactose), Irritable bowel syndrome (body might be sensitive to FODMAPS), or sensitivity to food additives (MSG).
Diagnosis: Trial-and-error with food elimination and re-introduction, which can be done by a Registered Dietitian.  Breath Hydrogen tests can be done for lactose intolerance.

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Bottom Line:

There are important differences between food allergy and food intolerance.  If you are navigating a restricted diet or dealing with symptoms of bloating, bowel changes or discomfort, working with a Registered Dietitian can help to ensure you have a balanced diet.  Children following a restricted (allergy free) diet should be monitored by a Dietitian during periods of growth and development.  Remember to carry an Epi-Pen if you have a severe food allergy.