Understanding Food Intolerance and Sensitivities Plus Easy Substitutes

Words: Tam Selley

Let’s chat food intolerance. In recent years, food intolerance has stepped into the spotlight following a surge in popular banting, paleo, and plant-based diets. While many may joke about new age fad-diets and pretentious food trends, it’s important to take note of the prevalence of individuals that actually suffer from food sensitivities, intolerances and allergies.

We highlight some of the common types of food intolerances, sensitivities and allergies, symptoms to look out for and easy substitutes that you can try.

food intolerance

The Difference Between Food- Allergies, Intolerance & Sensitivities

It’s pretty common to get these terms a little confused so let’s clear things up for you – according to WebMD:

Food Allergy

Allergies involve the immune system. Food proteins react with the immune system and cause allergy-type symptoms that can range from a blocked nose and watery eyes to more serious reactions like hives and anaphylactic shock. These are very specific immune responses to particular foods, the most common being peanuts, eggs, shellfish and soy. If you have a food allergy, you’ll most likely already know about it from early exposure as a child.

Food Sensitivity

Similar to the above, a food sensitivity also involves reactions that stem from the immune system. These are harder to diagnose though, as there can be multiple reasons for a response as opposed to just one (like an allergy). The result is a release of mediators (body’s defence mechanisms) that cause varying degrees of inflammation (allergy symptoms) that can affect different parts of the body. Phew!

Food Intolerance

Intolerances involve the digestive system. A food intolerance has nothing to do with our body’s responses to foods, but rather with our inability to digest certain foods.

How Do I Know If I Have a Sensitivity/Intolerance to Food?

If you have an intolerance or allergy to a food, it will be pretty easy to pinpoint as you’ll have an immediate and specific reaction to that food after consuming it. Here are some common symptoms:

Food intolerance symptoms (WebMD)

  • Bloating, gas, abdominal pain
  • Digestive issues like diarrhoea and constipation
  • Fatigue

Allergy symptoms

  • Blocked/stuffy nose
  • Watery/itchy eyes
  • Skin rashes
  • Itchy mouth or ear canal
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat that can result in difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain

Food sensitivity symptoms

Trying to pinpoint a food sensitivity, on the other hand, can be tricky as the symptoms can take up to 3 days to appear, but let’s start with a list of the most common reactions to food that can highlight if you’re having a reaction to something that you’re putting into your tum. The most common symptoms involve the digestive system, the respiratory system and the immune system.

  • Issues of digestion including bloating, gas, diarrhoea, constipation, and other similar types of digestive issues. This can range from slight discomfort after eating to acute IBS.
  • Skin rashes
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Allergy symptoms such as a blocked and itchy nose, watery eyes all the way to severe allergy symptoms (see above)
  • Excess mucus production
  • Auto-immune issues

How Do I know What Food I’m Having A Reaction To?

Food sensitivities are commonly diagnosed through elimination diets. Basically, all the common foods associated with food intolerances are removed from the diet until the symptoms subside, and then each food group is reintroduced one by one until the distress-causing food culprit is ascertained. This is the most common method and requires a certain level of self-control and sanity to cut out so many types of snacks. Other routes involve various testing methods at hospitals like the skin prick test.

The Common Culprits


food intolerance

Almost a whopping 75% of the population suffer from varying degrees of lactose intolerance (PubMed). This has to do with the absence of the enzyme lactase in the body necessary to digest lactose (the primary sugar in milk). As we grow out of our infancy stages, our bodies start to lose the ability to digest lactose, as we have no actual biological need for milk.

Common indicators that your tum might have an intolerance to dairy all point to your digestion. Any bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, gas, nausea and bloating are the common indicators that dairy is not your pal. Allergies to dairy will result in the common allergy type symptoms.

For those of you worried about cheese, you’ll be happy to know that naturally made aged cheeses have zero to trace amounts of lactose in them from the cheese making process which drains most of the lactose off with the whey and are therefore fine to eat if you’re lactose intolerant – just stay away from the processed stuff!!

Easy substitutes for dairy

Soy, almond, rice and coconut milks are the most common substitutes. Other nut milks are used as well and are relatively easy to make at home.

Try this Nutty Hot Chocolate Made with Homemade Almond Milk


Bread Recipes

Gluten is pretty much on par with dairy when it comes to awareness and substitutes. Following the rise in banting-type diets and the subsequent war on carbs, gluten-free options are available at almost every food-serving establishment these days.

But what is gluten even? Gluten is the name for proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale (hybrid of wheat and rye).

Varying degrees of intolerance/sensitivity exist with gluten as well. The common issues relating to gluten are coeliac disease, non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergies.

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivities have been said to impact up to 13% of the population. This is general gluten sensitivity that doesn’t affect the immune system. The general symptoms experienced by those with gluten intolerance/sensitivity range from digestive issues to allergy-type symptoms.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease which attacks the small intestine and can cause the digestive system some serious harm. This can be fatal, so staying away from products containing gluten is straight up necessary.

Easy substitutes for gluten

There really isn’t a shortage when it comes to gluten-free products and wheat alternatives. Almond, buckwheat, coconut, chickpea, tapioca and rice flours are very popular for use in baking.

Try your hand at these delicious gluten-free recipes.


Food intolerance

Egg allergies and intolerances are most prevalent in infancy and early childhood, but often these cases resolve themselves as children grow older. A food intolerance or allergy with eggs in adults is pretty rare but cases definitely still exist.

Easy substitutes for eggs

If you’re looking for baking substitutes to replace the binding attributes in eggs, you can either opt for applesauce, mashed bananas (this will leave a slight taste of banana, so if you don’t like banana this might not be for you) or ground flaxseed mixed with water (1 part flaxseed 3 parts water). If you love eggs with your brekkie, you can try silken tofu as a scrambled egg alternative.


Food intolerance

Soy is also a tough cookie to crack because so many unexpected processed products contain soy and many variations of soy exist from soybeans, edamame beans (which are early harvested soybeans) to soy sauces, miso, soy milk and popular meat alternatives like tofu and tempeh.

Easy substitutes for soy

If you are using soy as a meat alternative, you can opt to use seitan, nuts, seeds, peas and beans as sources of protein.

Try this recipe for Edamame Beans with Ponzu Dressing for a quick, easy and healthy dose of protein.


Food intolerance

Ever experienced ‘bar rash’ after drinking wine or other alcohols? If you don’t know what bar rash is, you’re fortunate enough to have never picked up bizarre blotchy red skin after drinking too much vino. But if you have, then you most likely have a sensitivity to sulphites, which are commonly contained in wine, dried fruit, beer and apple cider.

Organic wines and biodynamic wines will contain lower levels of sulphites but it’s important to note that wines naturally contain sulphites. Sulphites are often used in food production to preserve foods, so keep a lookout on your labels when buying your groceries.

The list of food types that cause sensitivities and intolerances is pretty broad, and while the most common perpetrators have been mentioned, there are still numerous food groups that people may be allergic/sensitive to like caffeine, fructose and MSG. If you display recurring symptoms, as mentioned in this article, it would be best to seek medical advice to find out the best route for you and your tum.

Check out some of our dairy-free recipes for inspiration.

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