Food Allergy vs Food Intolerance: What You Should Know

Food allergies are extremely common. Recent research from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) indicates that up to 5% of the adult population has a food-related allergy in one way or another. That number is 3% higher in children. A study found that 19% of people who claimed they have food allergies were actually mistaken; instead, they actually have a food intolerance (which affects around 20% of the population).

Food allergies differ from food intolerances — in a true food allergy, an immune response is triggered, whereas a food intolerance does not trigger immune system. Also unlike allergies, food intolerances can range from mere discomfort to life-altering, but they are rarely (if ever) fatal.

Examples of Common Food Intolerances

  • Gluten. The recent rise of gluten-free food items in restaurants and grocery stores is due to widespread gluten intolerance awareness. Gluten is a natural type of protein found in wheat, barley and other grains that damages the digestive system of people who suffer from celiac disease.
  • Dairy/Lactose Intolerance. Lactose is a sugar that’s found in dairy products — milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.
  • Sulfite sensitivity. Sulfites are natural chemicals that are often used as additives in common foods such as baked goods, pickled foods, beer & wine, soup mixes, jams, gravies and potato chips.

Symptoms of Food Allergies

Symptoms of a food allergy can occur immediately after coming into contact with the triggering food or up to several hours later, depending on the type of allergy. Telltale signs of an allergic reaction are:

  • Swelling of the face, throat, or tongue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Low blood pressure
  • Hives or a rash
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea

For allergy sufferers, a condition known as anaphylaxis can occur suddenly and is a sign of a serious allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis is a serious condition that requires medical treatment and is characterized by swelling of the throat and mouth, trouble breathing, and a drop in blood pressure.

Examples of Common Food Allergies

Soy, milk, eggs, and wheat are a staple part of many diets, yet they represent a large percentage of allergy-related reactions. Though sufferers must contend with a lifelong condition, these allergies are rarely life-threatening. The following two food categories constitute the most serious of food-related allergies. If you or a loved one are allergic to these foods, it is imperative that you avoid the food at all times, and educate yourself about what steps to take in case of an emergency.

Peanut and Tree Nut Allergies

According to the AAAAI, peanuts and other tree grown nuts are the most common cause of food allergy-related deaths. In the U.S. alone, almost 1% of the population reportedly suffers from allergies to peanuts and tree nuts – and nearly 200 people die each year from reactions. Over half of nut-related deaths are attributed to peanuts, specifically. One reason these cases continue is due to the universal presence of nuts in American restaurants, food manufacturing and packing facilities. 

What You Can Do

Peanut allergies typically manifest at a young age and the reaction can be quite serious. If you are allergic to peanuts, there is a 50% chance you are also allergic to other tree grown nuts. Educate yourself on the names of peanut byproducts and other nuts as these may appear on ingredient lists and likely will trigger the same reaction as the originating food. Because of the allergy’s severity, carrying an EpiPen is the wisest course of action. Though a peanut allergy is thought to be a lifelong condition, experts have revealed that up to 20% of sufferers may outgrow their allergy. 

Shellfish Allergies

Unlike nut allergies, many people develop shellfish allergies later in life. Because the allergy usually develops without warning, it is the most common cause of food allergy-related emergency room visits for individuals over the age of 6. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reports that shellfish allergies now affect over 7 million Americans, or approximately 2.3% of the U.S. population. Shrimp, lobster, and crab all fall into the shellfish category and should be avoided if symptoms are present themselves.

What You Can Do

Fortunately, unlike peanuts, shellfish is rarely a hidden ingredient in food manufacturing. Reading the label thoroughly and avoiding restaurants where seafood is a dominant part of the menu are key to avoiding a possible reaction. Many doctors recommend avoiding seafood altogether due to a strong possibility of cross-contamination. However, a fish allergy is not the same as a shellfish allergy and they are not mutually exclusive. EpiPens are also effective in situations where a shellfish allergy is triggered.

A Final Word on Food Allergies

With all allergies, awareness is critical to avoiding a reaction. If you’re eating packaged food, read the label thoroughly to ensure the product is not made in a factory with ingredients that may trigger an allergic reaction. Even cosmetics may contain traces of certain allergy-causing agents. When dining out, pay attention to any allergy notes on the menu and ask your server about preparation methods. Furthermore, make those around you aware of your allergy and plan ahead by speaking to your doctor about carrying an epinephrine auto-injector or EpiPen.