The difference between food allergies and intolerances

Flyingdream at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Food allergies are often confused with food intolerances, but there are some clear differences.

A food allergy causes a set of adverse reactions that occur as a particularly strong response from the immune system when the organism perceives a normally harmless food as a threat. The substances that cause allergies are not the food itself, but some of the proteins in it, called allergens, which lead the body to mistakenly produce antibodies. The main food allergens are milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soybeans.

Food intolerances are different. The adverse reaction does not usually involve the immune system. The problem is related to digestion and is due to the lack of certain enzymes required for metabolising and using a particular substance in food. For example, lactose intolerance is caused by a lack of the enzyme lactase.

Although allergies and intolerances may share some symptoms, allergies cause a much more immediate immune response, with symptoms occurring within two hours. Digestive reactions may include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, and non-digestive reactions may include hives, itching, respiratory problems, and, in the most severe cases, anaphylactic shock.

In the case of food intolerances, reactions are usually delayed and involve only the digestive system. Symptoms are less acute, recur frequently over time and are unlikely to cause death.

Food allergies are often inherited, although there are other factors involved, such as age, the state of the intestinal mucosa and the amount of food ingested. Intolerances may be genetic or developed over time.


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Written by

Tamsin Brown

Originally from London, Tamsin is based in Malaga and is a local reporter for the Euro Weekly News covering Spanish and international news. Got a news story you want to share? Then get in touch at [email protected]

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