The Difference Between A Food Allergy And Intolerance - The British Hamper Company

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The Difference Between A Food Allergy And Intolerance

14 Nov 2023

Food is crucial to us and we love to enjoy and celebrate it!  We talk about it, meet up for it and dream of it. We post photos of our meals and share recipes. It makes us happy.  

But we’re a health-conscious lot these days, becoming much more mindful of what we put into our bodies.

You can’t avoid the daily reads about what foods are good or bad for us.

As we focus on our health, fitness and overall well-being, we’re becoming more aware of how our bodies react to certain foods.


And as a result, some of us find we have an allergy or an intolerance.

But do you know the difference between the two?

We might use the terms casually at times (as some symptoms can be similar) but it IS important to know the difference.

Remember - it's important that if you're unsure if you have an allergy or intolerance, you seek medical advice as soon as possible. Be safe!


What is a food allergy?

A true food allergy affects your immune system. Your body sees a certain food as harmful and this triggers an allergic reaction.

What happens?

Your immune system identifies a certain food or substance in food as harmful. So it triggers cells to release an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE) to neutralise the allergen. 

The next time you eat even the smallest amount of that food, IgE antibodies sense it and signal your immune system to release a chemical called histamine, as well as other chemicals, into your bloodstream. It is these chemicals that cause the allergy symptoms.

The symptoms can vary from mild to life-threatening.

Symptoms usually develop very soon after eating the food (usually within 2 hours):

  • Swelling/itching of the lips, face, eyes, ears.
  • Skin rashes.
  • Tingling mouth.
  • Hives or welts.
  • Throat tightness.
  • Wheezing.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Light-headedness or fainting.
  • Anaphylaxis (life-threatening signs and symptoms, emergency situation).



Under Food Law there are 14 allergens that MUST be listed if they’ve been used as ingredients:

  1. Celery
  2. Cereals containing gluten
  3. Crustaceans
  4. Eggs
  5. Fish
  6. Lupin
  7. Milk
  8. Molluscs
  9. Mustard
  10. Peanuts
  11. Sesame
  12. Soybeans
  13. Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (over a certain amount)
  14. Tree nuts


It’s a legal requirement for food businesses to inform customers if they contain the above.

You might see labelling on products like ‘MAY CONTAIN’  (due to cross-contamination during the production process) but there’s no legal requirement to say this.

You might also see ‘NOT SUITABLE FOR….’  This is precautionary allergen labelling.



What is food intolerance?


Having an intolerance to a particular food means you have trouble digesting it or that it irritates your digestive system.

The immune system is not involved.

It’s considered less severe than an allergy but it can certainly be very unpleasant, debilitating and harmful, especially for babies and young children.


What are the causes of food intolerance?

One possible cause is a lack of the enzymes that are needed to digest a particular food e.g. not having enough lactase, which results in lactose intolerance.

Another is a sensitivity to food additives e.g. sulfites, used in preserving.


Symptoms take longer to appear than with allergies, usually between 12-24 hours and generally only affect the digestive system.

Some people find they’re able to tolerate a little of the particular food.


Symptoms include:

  • Sweating.
  • Headache.
  • Bloating.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Palpitations.
  • Tremor.
  • Nausea.


Common Food Intolerances:

  • Dairy Products
  • Chocolate
  • Food additives
  • Tomatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Citrus fruits
  • Eggs
  • Histamine (found in wine and cheeses)




  1. In the UK around 2 million people are living with a diagnosed food allergy (according to the Food Standards Agency).
  2. Milk is the most common allergen for children followed by egg and peanut.
  3. Shellfish is the most common allergen for adults followed by peanut and tree nuts.
  4. Adults can develop allergies.
  5. The most common food intolerances are gluten, dairy and FODMAP foods (a group of carbohydrates that are not fully digested, like sprouts, onions and garlic).



Is coeliac disease a food intolerance or allergy?

It's neither!

Many people think coeliac disease is a food intolerance, to gluten. I certainly did when I was first diagnosed.  But it’s considered neither an intolerance nor an allergy! Confusing eh?!

It’s classified as an autoimmune condition. When you eat foods containing gluten your immune system mistakenly identifies the protein found in it as harmful and starts to attack the lining of the small bowel, which then affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients (which results in a huge range of symptoms).

It's possible to have an intolerance to gluten, with all the nasty symptoms, that doesn’t involve the immune system (non-coeliac gluten sensitivity).



Hope that’s made things a little clearer about the difference between the two conditions. Sometimes the symptoms overlap which unsurprisingly causes confusion.

With allergies and intolerances increasing worldwide, we must have some knowledge of them.

Both are unpleasant, can have major effects on the sufferer and in the case of allergy, can be fatal. Please seek medical advice if you are unsure if you have an allergy or intolerance. 


Here at British Hamper, we’re passionate about food and are acutely aware of allergens and intolerances but we want people to enjoy and indulge in great food!

That's why we have a range of hampers for people on a reduced sugar, vegan, vegetarian, halal and gluten free diet. 

The gluten free range is suitable for not only coeliacs but for those with a gluten intolerance.  Tasty, interesting products, all tried and tested and beautifully presented.

An indulgent treat for those living on a restricted diet!