Updated: Jul 6
Many people experience different reactions to some of the foods they eat. Some people may have a food allergy toward certain things, some may have a food intolerance, and some may have a food sensitivity. What exactly is the difference between the three reactions?
An allergic reaction is one way your body can respond when it senses something is off with the food or drink you are consuming. “When your immune system senses that a food or something in a food is a “danger” to your health…your immune system sends out immunoglobulin E or IgE antibodies. These react to the food or substance in the food.” This is what causes a food allergy reaction to take place in your body. Allergic reactions can show up in a multitude of ways depending on the person and depending on how severe the allergy is.
Some symptoms of a food allergy include:
● Swollen/itchy lips/mouth/skin; general itching
● Tightening of throat; hoarse voice
● Nausea/ vomiting
● Diarrhea/ cramps
● Wheezing/trouble breathing
● Throat closing; lips/tongue swelling
● Flushing of the skin
● Itchy palms/soles of feet
● Feeling faint
● Fast pulse
● Low blood pressure
● Loss of consciousness
Having a severe allergic reaction is a medical emergency, and is treated with epinephrine. It is always a good idea for people with severe food allergies to carry an EpiPen if there is even the smallest chance of coming into contact with what they are allergic to. However, they should still go to an emergency medical facility even after injecting themselves.
Whereas a food allergy takes place in the immune system, “a food intolerance response takes place in the digestive system…[and] occurs when you are unable to properly break down the food.” A food intolerance is not as severe as a food allergy, but it can still make the individual feel discomfort and experience some mild symptoms similar to food allergy symptoms like nausea/vomiting or diarrhea/cramps/flatulence. People with food intolerances are still able to eat the foods they experience these symptoms with in small amounts, as they are not usually life-threatening.
Although researchers and scientists are still defining what actually constitutes a food sensitivity, “The ESNM Gut Microbiota for Health section…[reports] that sensitivities result from an inappropriate activation of the immune system upon exposure to a particular food. This is an IgG-mediated immune response, as opposed to the IgE-mediated response involved in allergic reactions.” Some symptoms of food sensitivity may be “abdominal pain, anxiety, bloating, brain fog, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches, heartburn, joint pain, nausea, and rashes, which closely mirror many autoimmune disease symptoms.”
Whether you think you may be experiencing food allergies, food intolerance, or food sensitivity for the first time, it is important to bring up to your doctor so they can help you understand what may be affecting your body and how to avoid any unwanted or uncomfortable symptoms.
References:  Food allergies. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/food-allergies  Food allergies. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/food-allergies  Food intolerance versus food allergy. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. (n.d.). https://www.aaaai.org/Tools-for-the-Public/Conditions-Library/Allergies/Food-Intolerance  Food sensitivity, intolerance, or allergy: What's the difference? Global Autoimmune Institute. (2021, August 30). https://www.autoimmuneinstitute.org/articles/food-sensitivity-intolerance-or-allergy/.  Ibid.
Author: Lauryn Agron
Editor: Kaitlyn Longstaff
Public Health Scientist: Beth Hanff