Food Allergy vs Food Intolerance

Learn the difference between food allergy, food intolerance, dietary restrictions and preferences.
February 3, 2020

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 serving safe food.

What is a food intolerance?

A food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance or coeliac disease, means either the body cannot properly digest the food that is eaten, or that a particular food might irritate the digestive system.

Symptoms of food intolerance may include:

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

While the symptoms of a food intolerance or sensitivity may cause extreme discomfort, they are confined to the gastrointestinal tract and are generally not life-threatening.

Many people with 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 happens 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').

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 problem 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.

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”

With increased awareness of food allergies, the food industry has woken up to the reality that a customer could die from a serious reaction — perhaps even on the premises.

The seriousness with which most chefs now take allergies has made it possible for many thousands of people with legitimate food allergies to enjoy a safe meal in a restaurant or other food service business.

Unfortunately, the Australian food industry is witnessing a disturbing new trend — diners who use medical terminology like “allergy” and “intolerance” to describe food preferences.

With the explosion of influencer-driven fad diets, food industry workers are finding themselves pushed to the breaking point with bandwagon-jumpers who claim to be allergic to foods they don’t eat in order to force food workers to take their food requests seriously.

It is likely that these customers don’t realise that the word “allergy” triggers an elaborate, time-consuming protocol that disrupts the flow and speed of service in the kitchen; too many interruptions can easily derail service for the entire evening.

The sad consequence of this behaviour is that frustrated food businesses may be less willing to accommodate a customer with a real and serious condition; worse, Food Handlers may start to dismiss legitimate food allergies as “not real” and assume the customer is just being fussy.

It is unfortunate that some people will pretend to have an allergy, but Food Handlers must take allergy requests seriously, every time. 

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

Learn more about managing food allergies in a food business: