Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerances

Recently, we experienced an encounter at a restaurant where I informed the waitress that Vivi had an allergy to corn & the waitress responded with “Oh, I’m intolerant to gluten. If I have too much, I get a foggy brain.” The protective food allergy mom inside of me wanted to scream & say “NO! If Vivi eats corn, she could end up in the hospital, not with a foggy brain for a few hours!” 

That led me to realize that there is a lot of confusion surrounding food allergies & food intolerances & most people tend to use them interchangeably in today’s world. What is a food allergy? What is a food intolerance? How are they different? Are they life-threatening or not? Here, we breakdown what a food allergy is, what a food intolerance is, & how to navigate in a society that is muddled with both!

What is a Food Allergy?

Allergies to food have often been portrayed in the entertainment industry in comedic light, anyone remember Hitch where Will Smith’s face ballooned after a reaction to seafood & he & Eva Mendes’ character ran to the pharmacy for an antihistamine medication? However, most portrayals of food allergies in movies & pop culture are highly downplayed & are not as easy to fix as a quick run to the local pharmacy- in fact, they are much more serious than that. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, a food allergy is a potentially-life threatening medical condition that affects up to 15 million Americans. Food allergies in children have increased 50% since 1992, and today, 2 children in every U.S. classroom has a food allergy!

A food allergy happens when the body’s immune system misinterprets a seemingly harmless food as an invader & proceeds to release chemicals like histamine in an attempt to fight off the “intruder.” So an allergic reaction is your body trying to save you?!

Food allergic reactions happen quick & within minutes, the victim experiences:

  • hives & itching on the skin and throat
  • swelling of the lips, face, tongue, and throat
  • abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomitting
  • lightheadedness or fainting

In many cases, the reaction can be so severe that the body goes into what is called anaphylaxis. This means that the airways of the throat tighten making it difficult to breath, followed by a drop in blood pressure, & possibly loss of consciousness – scary, right?

The 8 foods below account for about 90% of all food allergies (but I know, firsthand, that it’s quite possible to have allergies to foods outside of these 8): 

  • wheat
  • milk
  • eggs
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • soy
  • fish
  • shellfish

Remember that statistic above? That means that it is very likely that either you will be the parent of a child with a food allergy, or your kiddo will be in the vicinity of a peer that has an allergy. As a parent, you may not even think twice about the cupcakes you bake for a school potluck, or even the lunch you pack for your little one, & how that might get into the hands of someone with an allergy (in severe cases, these symptoms could be caused simply by coming into contact with a surface that the allergen was on!). While there are now treatments known as oral immunotherapy (OIT) that involve multiple weekly doctor visits to inject tiny doses of the allergen until a tolerance is built, the only surefire way to prevent food allergy reactions is to avoid the triggering foods entirely.

What is a Food Intolerance?

A food intolerance, sometimes called a food sensitivity, happens when the GI tract cannot properly digest the food consumed. Symptoms are more delayed as it takes time for the food to reach the GI tract & can last from several hours to several days. Symptoms include:

  • nausea
  • bloating and gas
  • cramping
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • headaches

Common causes of food intolerances are:

  • lactose
  • wheat
  • gluten
  • caffeine
  • additives in artificial sweeteners and colorings

Someone that is lactose intolerant has a food intolerance. They do not possess the enzyme that breaks down lactose & they could experience stomach pain, diarrhea, & gas, after ingesting it. They will not experience the anaphylactic response that someone with a food allergy might experience if they simply came into contact with a surface that had the trigger food on it. If you suspect you or your kiddo has a food intolerance, it is important to keep a food diary to write down foods eaten & when symptoms appear.

Food allergies & food intolerances both cause negative reactions & discomfort & can lead to anxious feelings surrounding food. However, it is important to note that they are two very different things. Food allergies are life-threatening, whereas, people with food intolerances maybe able to tolerate small amounts of triggering food without experiencing any issues.

You may be thinking that if your child has a food allergy, they will be set up for a life of exclusion & ridicule – I know I had that thought when I first found out of Vivi’s food allergies.However, with a little research, it is perfectly safe to assume that people can lead normal lives -with food allergies orfood intolerances.

Whether or not your child has a food allergy, food intolerance, or neither, it is important to note that it is our duty as parents to make schools, daycares, and summer camps safe for everyone. Now, we completely understand that parents have a lot to think about as it is without losing their sanity (or what is left of it), which is why we believe in the importance of finding good, quality products that can be eaten on the go and shared with confidence without having to think twice about the ingredients in them. And that’s why we’ve worked so hard to make Partake Foods the go-to choice for everyone.

Learn More

To read more about food allergies & food intolerances, check out these helpful articles: