Food Allergies & Intolerances: What is the Difference?

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

For Food Allergy Awareness Week, we've teamed up with Caron Pollard, co-founder of the food allergy tracker app Teal, to clear up the haze around food allergies and intolerances

Do you ever have a bad reaction when you eat certain foods?

Around two million people in the UK suffer from food allergies. The figure for food intolerances is hard to determine although, according to the NHS, the number of self-diagnosed cases is rapidly increasing.

For many of us, watching what we eat is crucial if we want to avoid the uncomfortable or even life-threatening after-effects of consuming particular foods.

But how do you know if you are experiencing an allergic reaction or the side-effects of a food intolerance? We’ve joined forces with Caron Pollard, co-founder of the food allergy tracker app Teal, to discuss the differences.

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is a reaction by a person’s immune system to the presence of a particular food protein that it perceives to be harmful. The immune system produces an antibody (IgE) to fight off the protein. Caron explains that “We categorise allergic reactions as either IgE (immediate after ingesting or contact with the allergen) or Non-IgE (delayed reaction up to 72 hours later). IgE mediated reactions are more likely to escalate to severe life-threatening reactions requiring immediate emergency medical support.”

What is a food intolerance?

A food intolerance, however, is a difficulty with digesting certain foods. In some cases this is due to a person’s digestive tract lacking the correct enzymes to break down the food effectively. As Caron clarifies, “This is different to an allergy because an intolerance or sensitivity does not pose an immediate risk to life and causes discomfort instead.” The person is able to tolerate small amounts of these foods and in some cases may not have an adverse experience or notice any side effects until hours after eating.

What are the symptoms?

While some symptoms are present with both conditions, here are the most common ones associated with each:

Food allergy symptoms

  • Tingling

  • Swelling

  • Rash

  • Dizziness

  • Sneezing or itchy eyes

  • Wheezing or shortness of breath

  • Difficulty with swallowing

  • Abdominal pain

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhoea

Food intolerance symptoms

  • Bloating, gas or cramps

  • Stomach pain

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhoea

  • Heartburn

  • Headaches

Reactions to allergens can range from mild to life-threatening so call 111 to get medical advice if you observe any symptoms of allergies or 999 immediately in the case of a severe allergic reaction.

What causes an allergic reaction?

An allergen is the term used to describe a substance that can cause an allergic reaction. There are fourteen official allergens recognised in the UK and EU which, by law, must be named in ingredients labelling. Caron states “These have been recognised as the most common allergens which pose a risk to consumers with allergies and therefore need to be labelled correctly and emphasised on product packaging.” They are:

Whilst these fourteen allergens make up the majority of allergies, it is possible for people to be allergic to any food.

If you suspect that you might have a food allergy or intolerance, it is worth investigating further. Your GP will be able to give you advice on actions you can take including tests and elimination diets.

We’ll be catching up with Caron Pollard again soon to take a further look into living with food allergies and intolerances. We’ll also be asking whether there is a ‘cure’ and what we can do to manage our allergies and intolerances effectively.

free-from, with love x

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