Think You Have a Food Allergy? You Could Be Wrong

A food allergy is commonly referred to as an abnormal immune response triggered by a food product. However, the allergic reaction you experience varies from person to person.

You may have a mild reaction to certain foods which can be characterized by rashes or itching. In very rare cases, you could have an extremely dangerous reaction referred to as anaphylaxis, which can be life threatening. Some of the worst symptoms for anaphylaxis include closing of the throat and shock.

Many people report allergic reactions to foods like nuts, soy, dairy, and shellfish. However, researchers are finding that the symptoms of food intolerance are often misinterpreted for symptoms of a food allergy. While they may sound similar, these terms represent very different conditions. Food intolerance happens in your gut, while allergies are systemic. Discover how to find out if you are truly allergic to food, or merely experiencing intolerance below.

The Difference Between Food Allergies and Food Intolerances

You may be inclined to believe that food allergies and food intolerances are synonymous, but they actually have several differences. Similar to lactose intolerance, food intolerance triggers problems in the digestive system. Conversely, a true food allergy triggers a reaction from the immune system. However, many of the symptoms that arise from a case of food intolerance are similar to the symptoms of a food allergy, leading to difficulty in distinguishing the two.

Another key distinction between food allergies and food intolerance is the severity of the reactions. Food intolerance symptoms very rarely become life-threatening, whereas food allergies can sometimes be severe. The good news is once you know which condition you have, many remedies and solutions exist to help you cope with your body’s unique needs.

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance elicits a response in the digestive system, like nausea or digestive upset. This is because your body is unable to break down that type of food properly. In many cases, if you have a food intolerance you can eat a small amount of a problem food without triggering a response.

A good example of this is someone who is lactose intolerant, but who is able to drink a small amount without issue. In addition, there are many different dairy options available with lactose removed, which people who are lactose-intolerant can ingest. On the other hand, if you possess a food allergy for dairy, you cannot ingest any dairy product, despite the modifications.

Related article: Are you really lactose intolerant?

Through research, scientists discovered that there are a few answers as to what causes a food intolerance. These include:


  • Absence of necessary digestive enzymes. In the case of absent enzymes, you are left without a way to fully break down the ingredients you are ingesting. That can lead to a build-up in your system, which irritates your digestive tract, prompting an episode of digestive distress.


  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Irritable bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects the large intestine. People who have this condition report cramping, bloating, gas and abdominal pain. The symptoms become worse when certain trigger foods are ingested. However, more research is required to fully understand the relationship between IBS, food allergens and intolerances.



    • Sensitivity a to food additive. You may have a sensitivity to food additives like sulphites, which are common in foods like dried fruits, wines, and canned goods. In this case, you may find your stomach and digestive tract becomes irritated.


  • Consistent stress or other psychological factors. Stress and psychological factors can play a role in food intolerances. If you believe you are allergic to certain foods, the stress from that can be enough to set off an episode of psychological food intolerance.


  • Celiac Disease. Celiac disease is the most surprising cause for food intolerance. There are certain features in Celiac disease that are considered part of a true food allergy because of the activation of the immune system. However, a majority of reported symptoms for Celiac disease are classified as gastrointestinal and there is no risk of anaphylaxis.

How to Identify a Food Intolerance

There are ways to identify if you have a food allergy or intolerance. For example, when you first notice a pattern in your reactions to certain foods, try to keep a food diary. It is important to note when these symptoms arise, and a food diary helps you to keep track of all the foods you eat. If you notice any symptoms after you have ingested particular foods, make an entry in the journal.

From there you can try an elimination diet, cutting out key foods and noting the results in your food diary. However, you are advised to talk with your health care professional before starting an elimination diet on your own.

Related article: A Guide to Diet and Nutrition

If you believe you may have a food intolerance, it is also beneficial to visit your general practitioner (GP). Your GP will ask you a list of questions about your pattern of symptoms. This is why keeping a food diary is advisable, because you will be able to show evidence of the symptoms you experienced after certain foods, instead of attempting to remember on your own.

Other questions may involve your family history, and any previous history of allergic conditions. In many cases, your doctor can identify a food intolerance based on your reported symptoms and this background information.

Identifying a Food Allergy

If your GP believes you may have a food allergy, he or she will refer you to an allergy clinic. At the allergy clinic, you will receive testing to determine possible allergic reactions to commonly known allergy-inducing foods. The tests may be blood tests, or skin-prick tests.

A prick test involves poking your skin with needles that are coated in the extracts of particular foods. If your skin reacts by swelling, redness, or itching, it indicates a positive allergic reaction. In certain cases, you may undergo anaphylaxis, however the facilities have all necessary medications on hand to quickly and safely deal with the reaction.

Blood tests are an alternative to the skin-prick test. The physician will collect a sample of blood from you to test instead. From there, the sample is exposed to different types of known allergen-inducing foods, and the Immunoglobulin E (IgE) levels are measured. If your IgE levels exceed a threshold number for a certain allergen, you are considered positive for that food allergy. This test takes about five minutes to complete.

Related article: 4 Foods That Can Cause an Increase in Anxiety

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