Food Intolerance vs. Food Allergy

Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance

Do you or someone you care about have odd symptoms you may think are an allergy?  Are you confused by the terms thrown around everywhere? Is it a food allergy or a food intolerance?  What’s the difference?  Let’s see if we can narrow this down.  My introduction to the issues of food allergy vs. food intolerance came in bits and pieces. When you are dealing with infants and toddlers, trying to sort these things out most of us have a parental desire to find out what’s wrong with our baby.  By 1989, there was no denying I had some sorting out to do. My 6-month-old son kept spewing back all of his apple juice.  Doctors advice was just to dilute it.

Baby Talk

As he was able to speak, he would whine for “appo joos.”  Next was a rash, he always had this minor rash, especially on the front of his shirt where he dribbled his constant companion of apple juice.  Was I dealing with food intolerance?  This went on for a couple of years.  Some mornings he would gulp down his favourite drink before he ate his breakfast, and more often than not it came back up.  Being a first-time mom, I didn’t make the connection right away that it was ONLY the apple juice that was an issue. In his case, milk, or water never caused a problem.  Just apple.


Finally, one day I said to myself,  “Geez, this kid is addicted to the stuff.”  And I started to put the puzzle together.  I had even been craving apples while I was pregnant with him, but they gave me the nastiest heartburn while nothing else ever had. I have since discovered, often our food allergy and food intolerance triggers are things we can’t get enough of.  The foods we crave every meal or the extreme opposites which makes life easier. The foods we hate.

Soon, I also started reducing his apple juice consumption to just afternoons.  Before long I started to notice mood changes in my child.  The happy go lucky toddler started to become a real handful within about 10 minutes of his afternoon snack of peanut butter sandwich and apple juice.


This one week, we had picked up a different brand of the beloved apple juice.  We didn’t know there was much difference.  This little boys body knew.  Before bedtime, this kid was covered head to toe in a rash.  I showed his grandmother who lived nearby, and she said it looked like measles.  The next day I showed my own mother and she asked me ” What’s he allergic to?”


The topics came at me very quickly and very confusing.  There was no computer in our home at the time, so I had to find out in a trial by fire.  It was years before we had any confirmation with this child.  As the years have progressed I have found much much more is going on.

Unsure whether what you’re dealing with is food allergy vs. food intolerance?  It can be confusing and many people mislabel them all the time.  So,  Yes, recognizing the difference of a food allergy vs. a food intolerance was pretty tricky.  Having a medical diagnosis is very valuable.  You can be sure when test results show something.  But that is only the beginning.  Let’s go over some of the basic differences and similarities.

When your baby is unwell you want to get to the bottom of it.

Food Allergy

When the body reacts to something you’ve eaten, breathed, touched or otherwise been exposed to and it is an immune system response, this is considered an allergy.  These allergic reactions can be mild, such as hayfever, or severe, such as anaphylactic shock. We’ve all heard of the bee sting and peanut allergies that cause severe swelling to the point that a person suffocates.  These two are among the most commonly known life-threatening allergies.  Add to this shellfish, latex, medications, as well as eggs and dairy.  I’m sure there are many others.  If this is your case, I can only suggest these severe conditions need to be handled under medical care.  Food allergies can also cause asthma, hives, rashes, migraines, and other “body” reactions mostly away from the digestive system.

Food Intolerance.

On the other hand, if your body is reacting with other symptoms, likely more digestive in nature, chances are higher it is food intolerance.  That is not to say it can’t be an allergy, but intolerance tends to exhibit symptoms more in the digestive system.

In the case of my infant son, we had symptoms of digestive and systemic sources.  With the spewing, and with the craving we saw food intolerance symptoms.  When we eventually saw the final alerting symptom of the whole body rash, we knew this was from the immune system, not just a tummy thing.

Cravings and Aversions

As I mentioned earlier, our food allergies or intolerances can show up as cravings and aversions.  I will share the story of my food cravings for gluten-containing products in another post.  But as seen above it’s already been demonstrated in a pregnancy and a little child.

For years since then, when people ask me what I think about their situation, I ask them straight away, “What foods do you tend to crave?”  “What is the FAVOURITE food?”  Start narrowing down your puzzle right there.

Is a 4-10 days elimination diet a good idea?

Elimination Diet

Some folks would tell you not to do an elimination diet unless advised by your medical team.  My thoughts and experience have shown there is nothing wrong with a 4 to 10 day removal of a suspect food. Any longer than that definitely speak to someone who has medical training.

In the case of a gluten problem, you may need thorough medical testing. These tests work better if you are still eating gluten foods.

If you decide to try an elimination test for the 4 to 10 days watch for cravings and being mindful of any other symptoms that may change.  Symptoms may fade, or disappear completely.  When the food is reintroduced, on an empty stomach at the end of the 4-10 day period, you then observe for any symptoms that may appear.  I always plan to reintroduce the suspect food on a day when I’m off work, or not expected at any social functions.

I ain’t no Doctor

While I am not a doctor or even medically trained in any way, I know what I have lived through.  This story is just the beginning of my journey.  That baby who was craving  “appo joos” is now the 30 years old brother to 2 more kids with food allergies and intolerances of their own.

If you want to read more of this journey, and see if I can give you any guidance, then come along with me.  It has been an interesting learning experience.

8 thoughts on “Food Intolerance vs. Food Allergy

    1. Thank you for commenting. I have been dealing with food allergies for over 30 years. That was before you could buy any ready-made foods in the grocery stores. I hope we can both learn more along this path.

  1. This is incredibly informative. I didn’t know allergies and intolerances can cause cravings. I’m lactose intolerant and soy sensitive so dairy and dairy substitutions are fun. Anyways wonderful post!

    1. Cravings may not be evident in every case, but were you habitually eating a lot of dairy before your diagnosis? Thanks for dropping by, I appreciate your comment.

  2. I enjoyed your article, which is thoughtful and well written. My daughter-in-law has intolerances to gluten and lactose, so we will enjoy your posts as I blog about the meals I make for her… and my grandson, as we make progress in baby-led-weaning.

    1. I am glad to help. Combined allergies make things more challenging, but there are many great foods available.

  3. I have celiac disease I was dx when I was in my 30s. In my 50’s I found I also have to avoid dairy. I have a strong feeling that there are even more foods I need to cut out. Thank you for this informative post of the difference between an allergy and an intolerance.

    1. Of course, a Doctor or medical team is the best way to verify for sure, but sometimes we have to do the background work ourselves. At the end of the day, a Doctor might not see you the odd day when you’ve had a trigger. They may not find all the details of every meal from their testing. You have to figure out some of this puzzle on your own. If you have any questions you’d like to pass my way, I’d be glad to see what we can puzzle through.

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