10 Types of Food Intolerance and Their Symptoms

Also known as food sensitivity (not food allergy)

Food intolerance, also called food sensitivity, can lead to digestive symptoms such as bloating and nausea. While they can feel similar, having symptoms of food intolerance is not the same as having a food allergy.

Here is a list of the most common food intolerances. You will also learn how a food intolerance is different from a food allergy, how to find out if you have a food intolerance, and what you can do if you are intolerant to a specific food.

2:14

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Food Intolerances vs. Food Allergy

Food intolerances are not the same as food allergies. While food sensitivity symptoms and food allergy symptoms can overlap, they happen for different reasons.

Here are a few key differences between having a food intolerance and a food allergy.

Definition of Food Allergy

Food Allergies happen because of a reaction by the immune system to foods or certain parts of foods that are allergens.

When the body reacts to an allergen, it releases chemicals called histamines that can cause symptoms. People with food allergies can have digestive, respiratory, and even skin symptoms. People with severe allergies can have a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.

Food allergies are diagnosed with blood tests that measure IgE antibodies, which are produced due to the body's immune response to certain foods.

Definition of Food Sensitivity

While a food allergy is an immune system response to a food, food intolerance is a problem with digesting foods.

People with food intolerances can have gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea after eating certain foods.

Unlike a food allergy, food intolerance does not cause anaphylactic reactions.

Identifying a food intolerance requires careful observation of cause and effect. Some people are intolerant to food additives, like flavorings, dyes, and preservatives.

Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance

Food Allergy Symptoms
  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Skin rashes

  • Trouble breathing

  • Swelling

  • Itching

  • Hives

  • Anaphylaxis

Foot Intolerance Symptoms
  • Bloating

  • Gas

  • Abdominal Pain

  • Diarrhea

Source: The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology

Elimination Diet's Role in Diagnosis 

One way to try to identify a food intolerance is to use an elimination diet that's followed by a "challenge" phase in which you re-introduce the food and assess for symptoms.

While the diet can be helpful for figuring out which foods bother you, it doesn't work for everyone.

Based on your symptoms, you might not be able to tell the difference between food intolerance and a food allergy.

You should work with your healthcare provider to do an elimination diet. Throughout, you will want to keep a food diary, as other factors such as weather, mood, exercise, and menstrual cycles can all affect your gastrointestinal (GI) and other symptoms.

If trying the diet doesn't help you and your provider figure out what is causing your symptoms, they might want to do other tests. However, food sensitivity tests are not a reliable way to pick up a food intolerances compared to using an elimination diet and food challenge.

Deciding What Foods to Eliminate

If you don't know which foods you can't tolerate, it usually it's helpful to start your elimination diet by avoiding foods that commonly cause the most trouble for people in general. You can choose to eliminate one food at a time, or to eliminate them all at once.

1

Dairy Products

Studio Shot of dairy products

Jamie Grill / Getty Images

There are two reasons why a person may have a food intolerance to dairy products:

  1. Many people are lactose intolerant. This means that they lack enough lactase, a digestive enzyme necessary to digest the lactose sugar that's present in dairy products.
  2. Dairy products contain a protein called casein. Casein may be hard to digest and can result in inflammation within the digestive system.

Symptoms of Dairy Intolerance

Having a food intolerance to dairy products can cause gastrointestinal and/or respiratory symptoms, as well as skin reactions.

Foods to Eliminate

If you choose to eliminate dairy products to see if you have a food intolerance, you would not eat:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Yogurt
  • Ice cream
  • Any product derived from the milk of cows, goats, and sheep
2

Eggs

Basket of eggs on white table with black background

Dave Bradley Photography / Getty Images

Eggs have the notorious distinction of being on the top list of allergy foods for children. However, there are also proteins within eggs that some people can't tolerate.

Symptoms of Egg Intolerance

If you have a food intolerance to eggs, you may have gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, nausea, and diarrhea.

Foods to Eliminate

Egg whites have more of the proteins that can cause symptoms, but if you're going to include eggs on your elimination diet, it's best to avoid them completely.

Once you've eliminated eggs from your diet for a period of time, you can challenge the egg yolks and egg whites separately to assess for any reactivity.

If you have a food intolerance to eggs, you can avoid symptoms by following the same dietary recommendations as someone who is allergic to eggs. This can also include avoiding foods like baked goods that are prepared with an egg wash.

3

Peanuts

peanuts closeup

Maximilian Stock Ltd. / Getty Images

Peanuts are actually classified as legumes. They are one of the top food allergens.

Even if you don't have an allergic reaction when you eat peanuts, you could be intolerant to them.

Symptoms of Peanut Intolerance

Food intolerance to peanuts can include respiratory or digestive symptoms.

Foods to Eliminate

In addition to avoiding peanuts, you'll want to cut out foods made with them like peanut butter, candies, and baked goods.

4

Shellfish

Oysters presented on dishware on a table, overhead view

Jeff Wasserman / Stocksy United

Food intolerance to shellfish can happen because of proteins found in this group of marine creatures.

Symptoms of Shellfish Intolerance

If you have a food intolerance to shellfish you may have digestive symptoms if you eat it. However, you will not develop a life-threatening reaction that can happen with an allergy to shellfish (anaphylaxis).

Foods to Eliminate

To find out if you are intolerant to shellfish, you'll want to avoid:

  • Clams
  • Crabs
  • Lobster
  • Oysters
  • Scallops
  • Shrimp
5

Gluten

Variety of breads on wooden surface

rzdeb / E+ / Getty Images

Gluten is a protein found in barley, wheat, and rye. It must be totally avoided by individuals who have celiac disease. People with celiac disease are truly allergic to gluten.

You can have a gluten intolerance instead of a gluten allergy. Some people refer to the digestive symptoms they get from eating gluten as "gluten sensitivity."

Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance

There is some evidence that gluten sensitivity might be the cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in some individuals. People with IBS experience a range of digestive symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and bloating.

Anecdotally, gluten is suspected to be a factor in a wide variety of health and behavioral problems.

Foods to Eliminate

To find out if you have gluten intolerance, you can try following a gluten-free diet where you avoid foods made with certain grains.

Not all grains have gluten. Here are a few examples of grains that have gluten in them:

  • Wheat
  • Barely
  • Rye
  • Spelt
  • Farina
  • Kamut

You'll also need to carefully check food labels because gluten can be in bread, pasta, cereals, snack bars, and crackers.

Gluten is also often found in sweets, beverages, condiments, sauces, and processed meats.

6

Corn

Ear of corn artistically presented

Max Oppenheim / Getty Images

Corn on its own is a popular vegetable, but it's also an ingredient in a variety of foods. If you have corn intolerance, you may not be able to digest corn or have digestive upset when you eat foods made with corn.

Symptoms of Corn Intolerance

In research studies, corn has shown up as one of the top foods to contribute to IBS symptoms, like bowel changes, abdominal pain, and bloating.

Foods to Eliminate

While it can be easy to avoid corn on the cob, canned corn, and popcorn, corn is in a lot of other foods in less obvious ways. You'll need to read labels carefully and avoid foods that are made with corn products.

For example, many processed foods are made with high fructose corn syrup.

7

Soy

Soy Products on wooden surface
Mache Seibel, MD

Soy is a popular ingredient in many recipes and can also be enjoyed on its own in the form of edamame or tofu.

Soy is on the list of top allergens for children, but you can also have a food intolerance to soy.

Symptoms of Soy Intolerance

Anecdotally, many adults attribute their gastrointestinal IBS symptoms to eating soy-based products.

Foods to Avoid

Like corn, soy and its derivatives are now found in many food products. If you're eliminating soy from your diet to find out if you have a food intolerance, you'll want to avoid:

  • Tofu
  • Edamame
  • Soy sauce
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Miso
  • Tamari
  • Tempeh
  • Textured vegetable protein

You must carefully read food labels to see if it contains soy or soy ingredients. Many protein bars, frozen desserts, pasta, cereals, and meat substitutes are made with soy (for example, as soy protein).

8

Beef, Pork, and Lamb

Meat on shelf at supermarket

Katrina Wittkamp / Getty Images

Some people are intolerant to animal meats. Food intolerance to meat might be linked to the way the livestock is reared.

Conventionally raised livestock are given corn and soy as primary feed sources, as opposed to grazing on grasses in a pasture. These animals are also given hormones and antibiotics, all of which have the potential to affect the meat that you're eating.

Symptoms of Meat Intolerance

If you don't tolerate certain kinds of meat, you might have indigestion, nausea, and bloating when you eat them.

What to Eliminate

If you think that you are intolerant to meat, try looking for pasture-raised animals and do a food challenge with meats, paying attention to the way the animals were raised and fed.

9

Coffee

overhead shot of Cup of coffee

Jonathan Kantor / Getty Images

People who have a food intolerance to coffee usually experience digestive upset after having the beverage.

Symptoms of Coffee Intolerance

Many people report that drinking coffee stimulates their bowels. This might be a good thing for some, but for others, certain proteins and chemicals (salicylates) found in coffee may contribute to unwanted digestive symptoms. 

Foods to Eliminate

If you're going to add coffee and coffee beverages like lattes and mochas to the list of foods to avoid on your elimination diet, you will want to wean yourself off slowly to prevent caffeine withdrawal symptoms. 

10

High-FODMAP Foods

Apples, cherries, and nectarines arranged on wooden surface

Diana Miller Cultura / Getty Images

FODMAPs are a type of carbohydrate that are fermentable, osmotic, and poorly absorbed. Some people are not able to tolerate foods that are high in FODMAPs.

Symptoms of FODMAP Intolerance

High-FODMAP foods can cause digestive symptoms for some people. Research studies have found that following a low-FODMAP diet reduces IBS symptoms in approximately 75% of IBS patients.

Foods to Eliminate

If you think you might be intolerant to high-FODMAP foods, you can try a FODMAPs elimination diet first, then conduct a subsequent food challenge.

Intolerances to Food Additives

Some people are intolerant to certain ingredients in a food product rather than the food itself. Preservatives, dyes, or other ingredients may be behind their symptoms. The most common food additive intolerances are food coloring, sodium benzoate, and sulfite.

Summary

Food intolerances are not the same as food allergies, though they can have similar symptoms.

A person with a food intolerance gets digestive symptoms like gas and bloating when they eat a particular food. People with an allergy have an immune response to allergens in specific foods, and they can develop serious symptoms like trouble breathing, rashes, and even anaphylaxis.

While food intolerances can be difficult to identify, they are rarely life-threatening. The best way to find out if you are intolerant to a food or an ingredient in a food product is to do an elimination diet under the guidance of your provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes sensitivity to food?

    A food intolerance or sensitivity happens because a person has trouble digesting a certain food. This is different from a food allergy, which is an immune system response to an allergen in a food.

  • How do healthcare providers test for food sensitivity?

    Your provider might do blood and skin tests to see if you react to certain allergens. If you don't, you might be dealing with a food intolerance instead.

    But the best way to find out if you have a food intolerance is to do an elimination diet.

  • Are at-home food intolerance test kits accurate?

    At-home tests to look for food intolerances or sensitivities might give you some clues about which foods are causing your symptoms, but you should confirm the results with your provider.

  • Can you reverse food sensitivities?

    As with food allergies, some people grow out of food sensitivities. But there aren't any steps you can take to make this happen. You can, however, make dietary changes to mitigate symptoms.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Barbaro MR, Cremon C, Stanghellini V, Barbara G. Recent advances in understanding non-celiac gluten sensitivity. F1000Res. 2018;7. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.15849.1

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Additional Reading
  • Heizer W, Southern S, & McGovern S. The Role of Diet in Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Adults: A Narrative ReviewThe Journal of the American Dietetic Association. July 2009;109(7):1204-14. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2009.04.012.

  • Mullin GE, Swift KM. The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health. New York, NY: Rodale; 2011.

  • Shepherd S, Gibson P. The Complete Low-FODMAP Diet. New York, NY: The Experiment; 2013.