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Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances – what is the difference?

Ever wondered what the difference is between a food allergy, sensitivity, and intolerance?  The answer lies in your body’s response.

Food allergies

Food allergies occur when your body’s immune system reacts to a particular food.1https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/nutritional/food-allergy

Allergies can range from mild to life-threatening.  Common food allergies include dairy, fish, shellfish, eggs, soya, wheat, tree nuts, peanuts and sesame.2https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/food-allergy-food-intolerance.html

Symptoms of a food allergy may include (but are not limited to)3https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/nutritional/food-allergy

  • Rashes
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Vomiting
  • Anaphylaxis

Food sensitivities

Food sensitivities are often referred to as ‘non-classical food allergies’.  They also include an immune response but are not life-threatening like allergies.4https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/food-allergy-intolerance-or-sensitivity-whats-the-difference-and-why-does-it-matter-2020013018736

Food intolerances

Food intolerances are not life-threatening (although they can be incredibly uncomfortable!).  Food intolerances do not involve the immune system.  They occur when your digestive system is unable to break down an ingested food.  The most common example is lactose intolerance.5https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/food-intolerance

Those with lactose intolerance are unable to digest lactose, the natural sugar found in milk.  The reason behind this is often due to a lack of lactase – the enzyme that breaks down lactose.  Did you know that our Kefir is considered lactose-free?  That’s right!  The lactose milk sugars are digested during the fermentation process.

Other examples of intolerances include6https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/food-intolerance/7https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/food-allergy-food-intolerance.html

  • Histamine – found in fermented foods
  • Sulphites – found in some wines, ciders and beers
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) – often found in cured meats

Symptoms of food intolerance may include –

This is not an exhaustive list. It is helpful to keep close track of your progress, marking each symptom from 1 to 10 daily. You can use the downloadable health journal here.


Treatment for food allergies remains clear – avoiding allergenic foods altogether.

There are currently no formal treatments for food intolerances in the UK besides restricting or eliminating intake of trigger foods.8https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/food-intolerance/  Testing for food intolerance includes9https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/food-intolerance/

  1. Eliminating the trigger food and reintroducing at a later date to assess your body’s response
  2. Blood test
  3. Breath test (for lactose intolerance)

Avoiding trigger foods may alleviate symptoms in the short term but restriction risks nutrient deficiencies in the long term and does not address the root cause of your intolerance.  There is insufficient evidence suggesting that at-home testing kits give accurate results.  In any case, we would recommend consulting with your doctor, who may refer you to a food and nutrition specialist (Dietitian).

What will help?

Improving your gut health!

Gut dysbiosis refers to the imbalance between the bacteria living inside your gut microbiome.  Emerging research suggests that gut dysbiosis may play a role in the development of food intolerances, sensitivities, and allergies.10https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7346163/

Those who grow up in diverse environments, such as on a farm, are less likely to suffer from allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances due to early environmental exposure.11https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7346163/ Similarly, children who grow up with siblings or in larger families are less likely to suffer compared to those in smaller families.12https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7346163/

Trials examining the benefits of synbiotics in correcting dysbiosis as a method of preventing atopic conditions are ongoing.13https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7346163/ A synbiotic is the combination of probiotics (like Kefir) and prebiotics (like those in our Complete Prebiotic).

Kefir has been shown to have anti-allergenic effects. Researchers believe this may be due to the increase in regulatory T-cells, which play an important role in maintaining tolerance and suppressing unnecessary inflammatory immune responses.14https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4854945/

However, the use of probiotics in the prevention or treatment of allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances is not currently recommended.  For a personalised, accurate course of treatment, we would advise consulting your doctor.

Nevertheless, improving your gut health with synbiotics is a safe and natural way to improve gut dysbiosis! We would recommend starting with a Microbiome Test. The test examines how well your gut microbiome is functioning by examining five key areas: bacterial diversity, probiotics, pathogens, fibre synthesis and butyrate production. Importantly, the test will show whether you have a low-grade pathogen infection. It is important to get on top of these pathogens, as they may be slowing down your gut health results.

The test price includes a free consultation with our certified nutritionist, who will explain your results and give you specific, evidence-based suggestions about how to improve your gut health.

Curious to learn more? Click here to find out why should you be taking a synbiotic, written by our Head of Research & Development, Dr. Miguel!

For more information on IBS, click here, and why not check out our Co-Director, Shann’s, book The Kefir Solution: Natural Healing for IBS, Depression and Anxiety!

Always check with your GP for interactions with medications/health conditions before starting supplements.

Any questions? Contact one of our Nutritional Therapists via live chat, we’re available on weekdays from 8am to 8pm.


Questions? Talk to a Nutritional Therapist on live chat!

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