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Food intolerance, also known as food sensitivity, refers to difficulty with digesting certain foods. It is important to note that food intolerance is different from food allergy. The main difference between the two is that a food allergy involves the immune system, whereas a food intolerance involves the digestive system. There can be many causes of a food intolerance, such as the absence of an enzyme, chemical causes, or sensitivity to food additives. 

Symptoms of food intolerance can include intestinal gas, abdominal pain, or diarrhea. The best approach to avoid symptoms associated with food sensitivity is to either avoid known triggering-foods or eat them less often and in small amounts.

Some common types of food intolerance are:

  • Lactose
  • Wheat
  • Gluten
  • Caffeine


The most common symptoms of food intolerance can include:

  • Bloating
  • Migraines 
  • Abdominal pain
  • Irritable bowel
  • Hives
  • Intestinal gas


There are many causes of food intolerance. These include:

Absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food

Enzymes are needed to break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. In some cases, enzymes are missing, or insufficient, which can affect the way food is digested. For example, people who are lactose intolerant do not have enough lactase, an enzyme that is needed to digest lactose. 

Chemical causes

Certain chemicals in foods and drinks can cause intolerance. These can include caffeine in coffee, tea, and chocolates or amines in some cheeses. 

Sensitivity to food additives

Some people may have a sensitivity to certain food additives, such as sulfites that are used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods, and wine.

Infections and other causes

Some intolerance-like symptoms are the result of chronic infections of the digestive organs, chronic bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and systemic mastocytosis. 


The best approach to manage food intolerance is to know and avoid foods, or the substance in certain foods that cause signs and symptoms. One may want to start a diary and write down which foods are eaten, what the symptoms were like, and when they appeared. Another approach one may take is to adopt a short-term elimination diet. This means eliminating a particular food for 2-4 weeks to see if symptoms recede. Then the food will be reintroduced to the person’s diet to see if symptoms reappear.

Many food sensitivity symptoms can be managed with over the counter medicines, prescription medications, and environmental avoidance strategies if the food/substance is known. With allergy skin testing, patch testing and/or blood testing, we can rule out any food allergy you may have, discover hidden triggers, confirm suspected triggers, and provide additional treatments, including immunotherapy if appropriate. 

If you have symptoms that you believe could be related to a food intolerance, contact Northeast Allergy, Asthma & Immunology today to schedule your appointment.

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