When most people think of bad reactions to food, they either think food poisoning or food allergies. But in fact, many people experience ill effects after eating certain foods that are not caused by either of these two conditions. Food intolerance or food sensitivity is much more common than most people think. In fact, food intolerance is much more likely than true food allergies, which involve an immune system response. Though food allergies and intolerance are caused by completely separate conditions, the symptoms are often similar, causing confusion.

True food allergies involve the immune system, which attacks a specific protein in the trigger food. The symptoms may affect the digestive, respiratory, or circulatory systems. Food allergies may even cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Food intolerance rarely causes such severe symptoms. Instead, this condition tends to be accompanied by less serious systems that are gastrointestinal in nature. There are many possible causes of food intolerance, including lack of a needed enzyme – such as lactose intolerance – or sensitivity to a food additive such as a dye or MSG. Some doctors also classify celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome to be forms of food intolerance.

Why is it important to figure out whether you have a food intolerance or an allergy? Though the symptoms can often be similar, the conditions are handled differently. Those with food intolerance may be able to consume small portions of their target food without experiencing symptoms, while those with a food allergy can experience severe symptoms from just a trace of their allergen. In addition, depending on the root cause of the food intolerance, there may be a way to prevent symptoms, such as lactase enzyme pills enabling those with lactose intolerance to drink milk. However, if it is a true food allergen, there is no comparable way to prevent a reaction when consuming the trigger food.

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