You've probably heard a friend or family member claim to be allergic to one food or another, in reality only about 4 percent of the population has an actual food allergy, according to The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. While it's true that African-American children lead the way with the greatest risk of developing food allergies, the fact still remains that the term gets abused. Some even think of food intolerance and food allergies as one in the same, but they're not, and it's important to know the difference.
Though a food allergy can cause some of the same symptoms, food intolerance is a lot more common. If you have a food allergy, you could get hives or swelling of the throat, tongue or face, as well as tingling of the mouth, fainting, difficulty breathing or dizziness. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, cramping and diarrhea, which can also happen when you have a food intolerance.
Food allergies occur when your immune system mistakes a particular food for a threatening substance, going as far as making antibodies to fight the perceived intrusion. From that first occurrence on, anytime you have even the smallest bite of that food, your body will tell your immune system to attack. At that point, your immune system will bombard your bloodstream with histamine and chemicals in attempt to fight it; this is when you begin to feel the allergy symptoms.
Food intolerance, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the immune system. With a food intolerance, if you eat a little of the questionable food, you may feel fine, but if you eat too much, you can experience various discomforts depending on the type of food intolerance you have. There are five kinds of food intolerances, according to WebMD:
—Absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food. A common example is lactose intolerance—which can cause bloating, cramping, diarrhea and excess gas.
—Irritable bowel syndrome. This chronic condition can cause cramping, constipation and diarrhea.
—Food poisoning. Commonly caused by consuming bacteria in spoiled food or other toxins, food poisoning can cause severe digestive symptoms.
—Sensitivity to food additives. Some people have digestive reactions and other symptoms after eating certain food additives. For example, sulfites used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods and wine can trigger asthma attacks in sensitive people.
—Recurring stress or psychological factors. Sometimes the mere thought of a food may make you sick. The reason is not fully understood.
—Celiac disease. This chronic digestive condition is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in bread, pasta, cookies, and many other foods containing wheat, barley or rye. Signs and symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating. While celiac disease involves an immune system response, it's a more complex food reaction than a food allergy.
Never make assumptions when it comes to your health. If you experience any kind of reaction after eating a food, you should definitely talk to your doctor about it. Food intolerance can be uncomfortable, but if it’s a food allergy, it could potentially be life-threatening.