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The Most Common Food Intolerances

Food intolerances and allergies have increased in prevalence in the last 2 or 3 decades. It is estimated that it affects 20% of the population, including children and adults. Symptoms of food intolerance can range from mild to severe, with rare cases of extreme food allergies leading to anaphylaxis that can be life-threatening.

Currently, no cure for food intolerance or allergy exists with treatment involving allergen avoidance or emergency treatment to relieve symptoms. The information below will cover food intolerances, allergies, and the most common food intolerance and allergies.

Food intolerance vs. Food allergy

Though the terms are used interchangeably, food intolerance and allergy are different. Simply put, food intolerance is characterized by isolated digestive issues such as bloating, gas, heartburn, and diarrhea. Food sensitivity is categorized as intolerance.

On the other hand, food allergy is characterized by a rapid immune response, i.e., your body mistakes a food ingredient as a threat.

Therefore, food intolerances tend to resolve independently and are mostly not life-threatening. They only create discomfort and inconvenience.

On the other hand, food allergies require immediate treatment with an epinephrine or adrenaline injection due to difficulties in breathing and swallowing caused by tongue, throat, and lips swelling.

Common Food intolerances


The most common food intolerance is towards dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream affecting around 65% -75% of the population. Common signs are gas, bloating, and diarrhea after consuming dairy products containing lactose. Lactose is a natural sugar occurring in milk and milk products.

According to the National Institutes of Health, lactose intolerance is caused by lactose malabsorption, i.e., the inability to break down or digest lactose that develops after infancy. Most people with lactose intolerance can consume some amounts of dairy products without symptoms.

Fun Fact: Africans and Asians are more likely to have lactose intolerance, while some people in northern Europe carry a gene allowing them to digest lactose even after infancy.


Gluten is a protein commonly found in barley, wheat, and rye. Gluten intolerance can show as:

  • Celiac disease involves the immune system attacking the small intestines reacting to gluten.
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity- milder celiac disease not involving attacks on the small intestines.
  • Wheat allergy- allergic reaction producing antibodies reacting to wheat specifically.

Common symptoms are bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue, skin rash, joint pain, and anemia. Allergies can be induced by anything containing gluten, including beer and soy sauce.


Caffeine is a stimulant naturally found in tea, coffee, and cacao (chocolate) plants. Stimulants reduce fatigue and increase alertness by changing the nervous system. Individuals with caffeine hypersensitivity tend to have a reduced ability to break down and excrete caffeine leading to unusual reactions even after consuming small amounts.

Caffeine hypersensitivity (not allergy) may lead to anxiety, nervousness, restlessness, rapid heartbeat, and insomnia.

Fun Fact: Coffee was reportedly discovered by a shepherd who noted his goats had extra energy and refused to sleep at night after they ate coffee berries.


Salicylates are naturally occurring chemicals in fruits, vegetables, teas, coffee, spices, nuts, and honey. Additionally, they can be found in food preservatives and some medications. Most people can consume foods with salicylates. However, large amounts can cause health problems.

People sensitive to salicylates can show symptoms such as sinus infections, asthma, colitis, hives, stuffy nose, and nasal and sinus polyps, even with small amounts. While it is impossible to avoid salicylates in your diet fully, you can avoid foods such as coffee, spices, oranges, and raisins that are rich in salicylates.


Have you ever reacted to fermented products? Then it is likely you are sensitive to amines. Amines are chemicals produced by bacteria during food storage and fermentation. Though typically not harmful, histamine, one of the types of amines, can accumulate in the body if not properly broken down.

People with intolerances are unable to break down and excrete histamine. Symptoms are hives, itching, stomach cramps, low blood pressure, headaches, and diarrhea.

Amine-intolerant people should avoid cured meats, dried fruits, fermented foods, sourced foods (like buttermilk), vinegar, fermented beverages (like wine and beer), aged cheese, avocados, and citrus fruits.


FODMAPs are short for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides, and polyols. These are a group of naturally occurring carbohydrates associated with poor absorption in the small intestines.

The carbohydrates move to the large intestines, promoting bacterial growth that leads to bloating and discomfort. Additionally, these carbohydrates are associated with diarrhea as they draw water into the digestive system.

Symptoms are gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain. People with irritable bowel syndrome have FODMAP intolerances. Foods rich in FODMAPs are honey, milk, apples, bread, beans, beer, lentils, and soft cheeses.

Additionally, high-fructose foods such as soda, watermelon, sugar snap peas, cherries, and pears are associated with FODMAP intolerances.


Sulfites are chemicals typically used as preservatives in drinks and drinks. Natural sulfites can also occur in grapes and aged cheeses. Symptoms include hives, skin swelling, diarrhea, wheezing, coughing, stuffed nose, and hypotension. Foods rich in sulfites are wine, beer, apple cider, potato chips, dried fruits, and pickled vegetables.

Worth Noting: Sulphite intolerance is more common in asthmatic people. However, it can occur in non-asthmatics.

Importance of Food Sensitivity Tests

Food sensitivity tests are used to check how your immune system reacts to different types of foods. It is common not to know which food is triggering bloating and gas. Therefore, food sensitivity tests allow accurate determination of food intolerances.

Knowing which foods, you are intolerant or allergic to is vital to maintaining good health. You can do tests at home using at-home kits. However, you should visit a registered dietitian or gastroenterologist with specialized lab tests for more accurate results. The sensitivity tests utilize cell reactions and antibodies such as IgG, IgM, and IgA, while allergic reaction tests utilize IgE.


Food intolerances and food sensitivities are different from food allergies. Food intolerances do not trigger the immune system and are less severe. However, they can still negatively impact health and quality of life. If you suspect you have food intolerances, sensitivities, or allergies, consult a doctor, dietitian, or gastroenterologist and conduct food sensitivity tests.


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