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Know the Difference: Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance

A 2019 JAMA study found that 19% of people participating believed they suffered from a food allergy. When tested, the reality was that only 11% of study participants truly had a food allergy. How could so many misunderstand this complicated relationship with certain foods? That is because in many cases, those claiming to be allergic were suffering from a food intolerance.

What Makes Food Intolerances Different?

Food intolerances affect the digestive system, where as food allergies attack the immune system. Food intolerances do allow people to ingest certain types of foods. The end result is stomach and intestinal discomfort. However, those with true food allergies can’t ingest even the slightest amount of those food. Even remote or secondary contact with certain foods can be fatal.

Consumer Reports Health Editor Lauren Friedman concurs. “People with intolerances can still eat the food without serious consequences, but for someone with an allergy, touching, inhaling, or ingesting even a microscopic amount of the allergenic food can be deadly.”

Allergies are Fatal, Intolerances are Not

Friedman’s statements are supported by allergist Jen Camacho, M.D.,“First, speak to an allergist to make sure it’s not a food allergy, again, food allergies can be severe and can be fatal. If it’s not a food allergy, I think it’s important to speak to your physician and possibly, keep a log of you symptoms, keep a log of your diet, identify what are the foods that are not making you feel as well.”

Intolerances have a range of causes and non-fatal reactions. However, it is important to note that you can develop both food allergies and intolerances after childhood. Half of all new onset food allergies reported in the JAMA study began in adulthood.

One Thing to Remember

“The most important thing I would say is to identify whether it is a food allergy, because if it is a food allergy, then you need to have certain precautions in place and carry certain medications in case you do have a food allergic reaction. Helping to identify whether it’s an intolerance is also important because it can make your quality of life much better,” says Dr. Camacho.

Do you have a recently diagnosed food allergy or intolerance? Did you know the difference between the two? Tell us your experiences with one of the two or what you think in the comments below or contact us for more information! Feel free to shoot us an email to You can also find us on TwitterFacebook, InstagramLinkedIn, or even connect with us directly on our website!

About the Author: Aisha K. Staggers is a writer, lecturer, political analyst and literary agent. She appears weekly for “Staggers’ State of Things” on the Dr. Vibe Show. Her work has been published by Paper Magazine, AfroPunk, The Spool, GREY Journal, MTV News, HuffPost, Blavity, Atlanta Blackstar, For Harriet, New York Review of Books and a host of other first-run publications and syndicated outlets. Find her on Twitter @AishaStaggers. For more of her work, check out her page here!

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