There is widespread confusion over the terms used for people who have problems with certain foods.

“Allergic”, “intolerant”, “coeliac” and “hypersensitive” are often used interchangeably. This is incorrect. And if there is a sure-fire way to wind up a coeliac, it is to say they have a wheat intolerance. They are two very separate things.


6 – 8 % of children under 3 years old (in Europe and North America) have a proven food allergy (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE 2011)

Two people in 100 adults are diagnosed with a food allergy (Allergy UK 2012)

Symptoms can come on from anything between a few minutes to two hours (Allergy UK 2012)

When somebody has a true food allergy, the body sees the food as harmful and tries to protect itself, which triggers an allergic reaction

Allergic reactions can range from a blocked nose and itchy eyes to death, caused by a swelling of the mouth/throat and breathing difficulties (anaphylaxis)


An estimated one in 5 people in the UK may have symptoms that suggest lactose intolerance (Allergy UK)

Up to one in 10 people of the general population (UK) has a gluten sensitivity (approximately 4-7 million people in the UK) (Rostami et al 2012)

There are many more foods that people are intolerant to such as foods that contain fructose, wheat or artificial sweeteners.

Reactions are usually more delayed compared to allergies but symptoms can last for hours and even days

Sufferers usually react to more than one food at a time and it can be difficult to find which food is the culprit

A food intolerance does not involve the immune system, so is therefore not life-threatening. But it can be highly unpleasant, with symptoms ranging from nausea to those similar to food poisoning

A food intolerance/sensitivity can be caused by the following:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). For example if the body:
  • Reacts to certain chemicals in food, e.g. caffeine which is in things like like coffee/tea
  • Reacts to certain carbohydrates such as fructose which is in things like honey and mango
  • Coeliac disease
  • Following gastroenteritis (diarrhoea and vomiting bug) or food poisoning
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, i.e. ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease


Coeliac disease is NOT a food allergy or intolerance. It is an auto-immune disease. This means that gluten causes the body to produce antibodies that attack the small intestines. Antibodies are usually found in the blood and are supposed to attack things like bacteria, parasites and viruses, not the body itself

Coeliac disease causes a reaction to the gluten proteins found in rye, wheat and barley. Often people are also sensitive to the protein in oats and more significantly due to the cross contamination involved with oats

A strict life-long gluten-free diet should cause the symptoms to resolve

One in 100 people in Europe has coeliac disease (Coeliac UK 2013)

Symptoms vary. Stomach and bowel problems are most commonly associated with the disease. But it can cause lifelong bone problems, neurological issues (numbness, lack of co-ordination), infertility and miscarriages. If coeliacs do not stick to a strict diet, it can lead to cancer of the gut


Allergy UK 2012
Coeliac UK 2013
National Institute for Health & Clinical Excellence (2011). Food allergy in children and young people. Diagnosis and assessment of food allergy in children and young people in primary care and community settings. NICE: Manchester. P15
Rostami, K & Hogg-Kollars, S (2012). A Patient’s Journey Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. British Medical Journal. BMJ 2012;345:e7982

Please note this information has been produced using only reliable and evidence-based (where possible) sources. Information is however not exhaustive and may change frequently so please always check the links given in case information has changed.

Version 1 Produced October 2014 Review date September 2016