What’s the difference between an allergy and an intolerance?

Allergies –  A food allergy is an immune system response to a food, which causes the body to create antibodies to that food. When a person eats that particular food again, their immune system releases chemicals, including histamine. These chemicals cause allergic symptoms, such as runny eyes and nose, swelling, wheezing, vomiting and rashes to occur. Symptoms may start within minutes and can become life-threatening.

Intolerances – A food intolerance is different to an allergy and is an adverse reaction to a certain food, which which involves a different mechanism.  Intolerances often cause abdominal pain or discomfort, wind and bloating. Symptoms usually take longer to begin which makes it harder to be sure which food may have caused them

Lactose intolerance different from other intolerances in that it is caused by a person lacking the enzyme lactase which is needed to digest lactose (a natural sugar found in milk).   It is particularly common amongst people of African-Caribbean and Chinese origin.

It is thought that early weaning may have some involvement in the likelihood of allergies and intolerances developing, and certain foods (nuts, shellfish, wheat etc) should not be introduced until your child’s digestive system is mature enough to cope with these potential allergens. You can find more information about this in our weaning guide.  It’s also worth knowing that some creams such as nipple cream may contain allergens.

There is no evidence at the moment that what you eat while you’re pregnant or breast feeding has any effect on whether or not your baby develops an allergy.

You can find information from the FSA about peanut allergy, eating peanuts during pregnancy and introducing nuts to your child’s diet.

Whether you have a child with food allergies or not, it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the most common food allergens (milk, egg, wheat, soya, seafood and nuts), how to recognise thesymptoms of allergic reactions and how to treat allergies.

If you are concerned that your child may have a food allergy or intolerance, it is best to visit your GP to discuss this, before excluding products from your child’s diet.

Read how some of our members have coped with their children’s food allergies

Out and about

Awareness of food allergies is increasing and some take-aways, pubs, cafes and restaurants now label their meals with allergen information. It’s always worth checking that the information is up to date and accurate before ordering. As well as checking the actual ingredients, it’s worth asking which oils are used to cook or dress the food, as some contain oils are made from nuts such as walnut, peanut or hazelnut.

“In restaurants, we always let the staff know immediately so they avoid food with nuts or eggs. Some restaurants are better than others but most are very happy to assist and already have an awareness of children with allergies and keeping things separate. One needs to check things like burgers in case they are bound with eggs, remind them not to put mayonnaise on the bun and read the ingredients on ice-cream as the better it is, the more likely it is to have eggs.” Nankunda

chilcren with school dinners

Most schools and childcare settings are aware of food allergies and many now ask all parents to exclude nut products from their childrens’ packed lunches. If your child has a severe nut allergy, it might be worth asking the school to send out a letter to all parents asking them to do this.

Remember to inform the school of your child’s dietary requirements regularly and especially if they are going on an excursion where they might be eating unfamiliar foods. You may also need to inform other parents/carers if your child is going on play dates, to parties or to other out-of-school activities.

“Birthday parties can be quite difficult as the cakes are almost always made with eggs. Sometimes even the icing can be a hazard especially if it is marzipan and full of dangerous little almonds! We generally make an egg-free cake, cut it into slices and freeze them individually to be defrosted on the day of the party in question. She has always been very happy to have her ‘own cake’ at parties and most parents are keen to ensure that all the other party food is fine for her.Nankunda

Food labelling and allergen-free tips

ingredient panel from sausage packet

Unfortunately allergy labelling isn’t always consistent between different food brands and manufacturers, so you will need to check labelling before buying new products. Many of the allergy support organisations publish information about how to find suitable foods on their websites.The FSA has also published consumer information on allergy labelling

You may wish to contact some of the major food producers about this issue and ask them to consider standardising their allergy labelling.

  • Always be wary if ingredients list ‘vegetable oil’, as this could contain peanut oil.
  • Look out for these labels on foods: May contain nuts; Produced in a factory which uses nut products; Cannot guarantee nut-free; Not suitable for nut allergy sufferers due to the methods used in the manufacture of this product; We can’t guarantee this product is safe for nut allergy sufferers.
  • Fruit, especially pears, and believe it or not, courgettes, work well as an egg replacer in cakes as they add moisture to cakes. A little baking powder or self-raising flour will be required to get the cake to rise.
  • Egg replacers are available from most health food stores.
  • Avoid handling foods containing known allergens before preparing food for an allergy sufferer.
  • Good dishwashing and cleaning are effective against food allergens. Liquid soap and hot water and using clean cloths also work.

For more unusual ingredients like xanthan gum and speciality flours, try online stores, such as:

Goodness Direct, Dietary Needs Direct , A Lot of Chocolate, Allergen-Free Food, Gluten Free Catering



  • Larger supermarkets and some health food shops stock a range of ‘free from’ ready-made foods and gluten-free flours.
  • Always check labels on any food – even things you wouldn’t think would contain wheat.  These things include: Yoghurts – sometimes have wheatgerm & rusk in; Crisps  – often include modified wheat starch, rice & corn; Cereals – sometimes have rye and barley in; Frozen chips – often coated in flour; Multivitamins – normally contain a wheat based product.
  • Coeliacs can ask their GP for certain gluten free foods on prescription.
  • Use a separate toaster for coeliacs, to avoid cross contamination.
  • To convert recipes just swap pasta, stock etc to a gluten free brand.

If children are allergic or severily intolerant to wheat or gluten they may be entitled to gluten free food a prescription. Most doctors do not require a coeliac diagnosis for children to get this, but children may need to see an allergist.  Both my children react to wheat / possibly gluten, and have been given prescriptions for bread and pasta  which saves a fortune.  Coeliac UK publish a list on their website of everything available on prescription. Kristina.