Food Allergy vs Food Intolerance

Learn the difference between food allergy, food intolerance, dietary restrictions and preferences.
Food Allergy vs Food Intolerance
November 14, 2022

Food allergies and food intolerances can have similar symptoms, but are very different conditions. Both should be taken seriously by cooks, servers and other Food Handlers who are responsible for preparing and serving food safely.

What is a food intolerance?

A food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance, means either the body cannot properly digest the food that is eaten, or that a particular food might irritate the digestive system. Sensitivity to naturally occurring food chemicals, such as salicylates, often present in fruits and vegetables; glutamate (MSG), an amino acid found in protein foods; or amines, produced during fermentation, ripening and aging, can all cause symptoms of intolerance.

Symptoms of food intolerance may include:

  • nausea
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhoea
  • nervousness
  • headaches
  • gas

Unlike an allergy, a food intolerance does not affect the body's immune system. While the symptoms of a food intolerance or sensitivity may cause extreme discomfort, they are generally not life-threatening.

It is unknown how many Australians have a food intolerance. Some people with such food sensitivities can ingest a small amount of the problem food without experiencing too much discomfort; however, continued exposure to foods that cause damage to the small intestine can cause serious and long-term health problems, such as malnutrition, bone loss (‘osteoporosis’), bowel cancer, dental defects, irritability and depression.

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is Is an immune system response that triggers an allergic reaction; I.e. when the body's immune system sees a particular food as an invader. When this happens, the immune system fights the “invader” by releasing chemicals like histamine into the body ('allergic reaction'). An estimated two percent of Australians suffer from food allergies.

Allergic reactions can change very quickly from mild to severe. A severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis.

Anaphylaxis can cause life-threatening symptoms, such as:

  • difficulty breathing
  • throat tightness
  • coughing
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • hives
  • swelling
  • drop in blood pressure

It’s important to remember that food allergens are not cooked out of food.

Food allergens are not the same as dangerous microorganisms, which are living creatures, and are not “killed” by high temperatures. Food allergens are proteins and once they enter food, they become part of the dish — even if you can’t see, taste or smell them.

One of the biggest allergen risks in a food business is cross-contamination, which is when an allergen is inadvertently transferred from one dish to another, often through a shared chopping board or utensil.

Even a microscopic amount of the problematic food(s) could lead to a potentially fatal reaction. Food Handlers must be trained to communicate about food allergens to customers and prevent cross-contamination from happening in the workplace.

A note about coeliac disease

Coeliac disease, which is different than a gluten intolerance, occurs when the immune system reacts abnormally to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats, causing small bowel inflammation and damage. Unlike food intolerances, which do not involve the immune system, coeliac disease does. An estimated 1 in 100 people are affected by coeliac disease, and it may be triggered at anytime from birth to adulthood. 

What are dietary preferences?

Dietary preferences are different from food allergies and intolerances.

Someone with a dietary preference or restriction has chosen to remove certain food(s) from their diet, or has chosen to consume only foods that are prepared in a certain way or with certain ingredients.

The reasons why a person would choose to abstain from a particular food or foods are diverse; there may be a religious reason why they cannot eat specific foods, or there may be philosophical or moral reasons. The individual may have a health issue that is made worse by a certain food or food additive. Their doctor may have instructed them to cut down or remove certain food items from their diet.

Whatever the reason, it is important that Food Handlers do their best to respect these choices and ensure that food preferences and restrictions are taken seriously.

Customers who trust that their dietary restrictions are taken seriously by a food business are likely to return the favour with brand loyalty and repeat business.

A note about food allergies

Australia has ten most common allergies, but any food, food ingredient or ingredient component can cause severe allergic reactions, including life-threatening anaphylaxis. Taking food allergies seriously in a food business makes it possible for thousands of people with food allergies to enjoy a safe meal in a restaurant or other food service business.

While allergen management protocols, such as preparing allergen-free meals first and separately from other dishes may seem time consuming and arduous, taking these precautions ensures the safety of all customers and protects the food business. 

It's important that all food staff:

  • Understand the ingredients and components of ingredients in the food being served
  • Ask if they are at all unsure what is contained in a certain food
  • Have ingredient and allergen information available to customers when they ask for it
  • Record, store and communicate allergen information to all those related to food handling and service
  • Know the policies and procedures to take if a customer has an allergic reaction within the food business

While it is not unheard of that some customers may label a food preference as an allergy, Food Handlers must treat every allergy-related request seriously, and with the utmost attention and care, every time. 

If a food business cannot accommodate what the customer says they need, staff must be honest and tell them so. Never take a risk with somebody’s life.

For more information on Allergen Management, visit our member resource section. Not a member yet? Contact us today to find out how the Australian Institute of Food Safety can help your business.