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Is there a difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?

Much confusion surrounds food intolerances versus food allergies. Food allergies are an immunologic reaction that involves specific IgE—usually to a food protein. For instance, an individual who is allergic to cow’s milk because of a reaction to milk protein has a true food allergy. On the other hand, food intolerances are defined as non-immunologic adverse food reactions. An example is a person who may have intolerance to cow’s milk because of an inability to digest the sugar lactose. Although lactose deficiency can lead to gastrointestinal symptoms from an inability to digest lactose, the response would not be classified as a food allergy, since it is not immune based.

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Many people think the terms food allergy and food intolerance mean the same thing, but they do not. A food intolerance, unlike a food allergy, does not involve the immune system and is not life-threatening. For example, lactose intolerance (trouble digesting the milk sugar lactose) is a common food intolerance. Symptoms may including abdominal cramps, bloating and diarrhea which are uncomfortable but they are not life threatening.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.