What Is Food Intolerance And Food Allergy And Which Is More Dangerous

Most people can enjoy a variety of foods without any unpleasant consequences. However, there are those for whom eating the wrong food can result in signs of poisoning, skin rashes, or even anaphylactic shock. A pathological reaction to food can be of two types: an actual allergy or food intolerance. And it is extremely important to understand the difference between them.

So now we’ll try to figure out, as they say, on our fingers, the difference between an allergy and a food intolerance, how to recognize it, and whether there is a chance to cure the disorder.

What is food intolerance?

This disorder can be either congenital or acquired. If you don’t understand what’s happening to your body in time, food intolerance can cause metabolic disorders and, consequently, overweight and the development of chronic diseases.

The first thing to understand about food intolerance is that it is a disorder that has nothing to do with allergies. Yes, after consuming a product that is not suitable for the body, you usually have a not very pleasant reaction. But it has a completely different nature than an allergy.

According to researchers, many people do not even realize that they suffer from food intolerance, and they attribute their poor health after eating to its poor quality or health problems. However, scientists estimate that with age, about one in three people stop perceiving dairy normally, and one in one hundred people develops cereal intolerance.

Many people are also intolerant to mushrooms, peas, or berries. Almost half of the world’s population has an intolerance to a product (or several at once), and most of them don’t even know it. This statement may seem strange. How can a person not know that they are intolerant to a particular food? But if you know one nuance, everything falls into place. Signs of food intolerance can appear in 2 days or even later after eating a product that does not suit the body. A classic example of food intolerance is celiac disease, or intolerance to gluten (a protein found in cereals).

What is a food allergy?

Any allergy is a reaction of the immune system to a foreign and harmful substance from its point of view. When people talk about food allergies, they usually mean an abnormal reaction of the immune system to certain food components. But why is it that while some people can eat anything, others look at different food groups with concern, fearing an allergic reaction?

It’s all about the immune system, which sometimes malfunctions. In some cases, the immune system reacts to food components as foreign bodies, which triggers protective reactions in the body.

Differences between allergy and food intolerance

Food intolerance

To understand why food intolerance occurs, you first need to understand (at least in general terms) the principles of digestion. In a nutshell, after food enters our gastrointestinal tract, it is broken down into the smallest parts and in this form enters the bloodstream. If the breakdown process does not proceed as originally intended by nature, food enters the bloodstream in the form of larger macromolecular particles that have not gone through all the stages of digestion.

That is, if allergies are based on malfunctions of the immune system, then intolerance to certain types of food is solely the fault of the digestive system, which does not produce the enzymes necessary for the complete breakdown of food. Often, such a disorder occurs due to genetic factors or develops after very frequent use of antibiotics at an early age.

For example, if the body does not produce enzymes that break down lactose, a person develops an intolerance to dairy foods. By the way, dairy intolerance affects almost 70% of the world’s adult population. Most often, experts attribute lactose intolerance to a mutation in the gene responsible for the production of lactase (an enzyme that breaks down dairy food). Celiac disease is also attributed to genetic disorders.

A person with this disorder cannot digest food with gluten (gluten present in many cereals). According to various estimates, celiac disease affects about one in every hundred people on the planet.

Food intolerance can occur for various reasons – not only due to insufficient enzymatic activity.

Often, the body refuses to assimilate a product that contains some chemicals, such as preservatives or dyes. In addition, this condition can occur due to chronic diseases of the digestive system, stress, or poor environmental conditions.

Sometimes intolerance to certain foods can be paired with allergies. In this case, a person shows symptoms of two disorders at once. But what is interesting. Often, food allergies do not manifest themselves if the allergenic product is consumed for the first time. That is, when a person tries something new for the first time, the immune system may not have time to orient itself and react with an allergic reaction. But in the case of food intolerance, this trick won’t work.

If the body does not have the right enzyme, the reaction will occur every time you eat the wrong product.


Every food consists of a set of nutrients, among which proteins play an important role. The set of proteins may differ in different types of food. So it is protein that usually causes an allergic reaction to food. The immune system can perceive some types of this nutrient as a threat. If this happens, the body quickly begins to produce antibodies – immunoglobulin class E (IgE). With the help of these substances, the immune system tries to stop the “intruder” and prevent its spread throughout the body. If this does not help and the “foreign” substance again enters the bloodstream, another substance, histamine, is already being produced in the body in parallel with immunoglobulin. Histamine itself is harmless and even beneficial for the immune system.

But in the company of IgE, it triggers a chain of reactions in the body that cause an allergic reaction.

Food allergies can occur at any age, but most often the disorder occurs in infants and children whose intestines are not yet fully formed and are characterized by increased permeability, which makes proteins easier to absorb into the bloodstream. Most commonly, allergies are caused by gluten products, cow’s milk and dairy foods, strawberries, chocolate, nuts, tomatoes, eggs, citrus fruits, shrimp, mushrooms, and bananas. Sometimes people are allergic to all bright red berries.

What is more dangerous: allergy or food intolerance?

None of these disorders can be called safe. And it’s not just about indigestion symptoms or itching or rashes.

When it comes to food intolerance, the main danger lies in macromolecules. For our body, these substances are foreign, which means that it activates all possible mechanisms to protect itself from the “pest”. Thus, the body will not receive any benefit from the unbearable product anyway, so it is not worth consuming it in the hope of getting at least something useful. In addition, it should be understood that macromolecules in the blood can penetrate any organ, causing inflammation in it. If this is repeated regularly, inflammation becomes chronic and causes deterioration of the entire body. One of the consequences of food intolerance is metabolic disorders. Against the background of this disorder, weight gain, abnormal accumulation of fluid in the tissues, and kidney dysfunction often occur.

As a result of food intolerance, various diseases of the intestines, kidneys, gallbladder, thyroid gland, diabetes mellitus, migraines, skin problems, including eczema, and many other health problems can occur.

But if the consequences of food intolerance develop gradually and complications can occur after a fairly long time, then it is better not to joke with allergies and it is life-threatening. The consequences depend on the severity of the reaction. Some food allergens can cause only mild itching and rashes, which can be easily relieved with 1-2 antihistamines. But if the body reacts to an allergen rapidly and very acutely, then in a matter of minutes a person may experience anaphylactic shock and suffocation due to severe laryngeal edema. In other words, those who claim that allergies are deadly are absolutely right, and death can occur instantly after eating the wrong food.

Therefore, if you often have symptoms that look like poisoning, you should think about and analyze your diet and seek help from qualified specialists.

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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