Gluten allergy or intolerance
what's the difference?

The terms gluten allergy and gluten intolerance are often used interchangeably. Which is correct? A quick definitions of each of these is below, with further information further down the page.


In fact any food allergy, is due to an adverse immune response to a food protein. To put it simply, there is something in the food that your body believes will cause it harm, and therefore you build antibodies to defend yourself.


Is a negative reaction, often delayed, to a food, beverage, food additive, but is not a true food allergy. You may be able to tolerate a small element of the food, but anything in bulk will make your body react, no antibodies are generated however.

So the difference?

A true food allergy requires your body to make antibodies against the food, where as a food intolerance does not.

Food Allergies

A true food allergy is uncommon, said to only affect 1-5% of the population, but it can be serious, even fatal.

A food allergy involves an immune response to eating certain foods, such as peanuts or shellfish.

The first time someone eats this food their body can react by producing antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) which circulate through the blood and attach themselves to mast cells. 

When the food is eaten again, it prompts these mast cells to release chemicals such as histamine. There are more of these mast cells in certain areas of the body including the nose, throat, skin, lungs and the gastrointestinal tract. These are typical sites of an allergic reaction.

The result of eating a food you are allergic to can cause a swollen tongue, a rash, breathing problems or severe diarrhoea and stomach pain. It can also result in a drop in blood pressure, unconsciousness or even death.

A person who cannot tolerate gluten does not react in the same way as someone with an allergy. Therefore saying they are allergic to gluten is perhaps not the best way to describe their problem.

However, using this terminology when speaking to the general public, for instance when visiting restaurants, will allow you to emphasize the coeliac disease that you do have. Although they may not know what gluten is, "I have a gluten allergy" can make them sit up and take notice in case you pass out on their floor!

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is more common than having an allergy to a certain food. It normally does not involve an immunological reaction, but can cause discomfort, wind, bloating and stomach pain.

Gluten intolerance, however, does spark a different type of autoimmune reaction, if you are unsure as to whether you are gluten intolerant, do compare your symptoms to those that are common for most sufferers.

In a person with a gluten intolerance or coeliac disease (or celiac disease if you live in the US) there is an abnormality in the lining of the small intestine.

Ingesting products such as wheat, rye or barley, which all contain a protein commonly known as gluten, can destroy the finger-like projections called villi along the length of the intestine. These villi are key to providing your body with the maximum amount of nutrient absorbtion in the most efficient of spaces, and they help to move the food through the gut.

With continued ingestion of gluten over time, the villi of your stomach become more flat, rounded, no longer finger-like and therefore the area for nutrients to be absorbed and the motion of moving food along dwindles.

The impacts of this aren't as quick as those with a food allergy, described above, the malabsorption affects can take time to notice, reactions could be put to other tributary factors therefore disguising the true food intolerance and condition.

This is one of the reasons that people 'live' with the condition, unbeknown to them, and why in children it's important to catch it as soon as possible. Otherwise they may be given the label of a failure to thrive.

Be alert to possible celiac disease symptoms in your baby or child, such as not putting on weight, diarrhoea and sickness.

How do I know if I have an allergy or intolerance?

Sorry, I am not the person to tell you that. Your doctor is.

Diagnosing gluten allergy or intolerance can be difficult. To help your doctor found out what the problem is, it can be useful for you to keep a food diary. After a problem occurs pop a note to that effect beside the questionable meal or food item.

If you keep the diary for a few weeks a pattern may start to emerge. This along with your medical history, maybe some blood tests or a skin prick test will help your doctor begin to work out what may be wrong.

He may suggest an elimination diet, where you narrow the foods you eat down to just a few and then gradually re-introduce things that may cause problems.

If the doctor thinks coeliac/celiac disease could be the culprit he may organise a biopsy of your small intestine to look for those villi I mentioned earlier.


Do not put yourself on a gluten diet before a diagnosis is made. If you eliminate foods containing gluten the villi are able to grow back and the biopsy would be inconclusive or even provide a false negative.

If you have undiagnosed celiac you run the risk of other ailments, such as increased risks of osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer in later life. If you suspect it, talk to your healthcare provider regarding the celiac disease tests that can be done to at least rule it out!

An ebook that will help!

I recently discovered an ebook that, although written from a weight loss angle, has 100 recipes that are gluten free, dairy free (all but 4 of the recipes do not use any dairy) and sugar free. Currently the author is offering some very useful bonuses as well, which cover...

  • Gluten: Hidden Factor in Many Diseases
  • The Dangers of Gluten and Grains

The book also contains some sample meal plans and a whole lot more.

If you fancy checking this out you will find the Healthy Urban Kitchen Cookbook here.

I hope this page has helped you see the difference between gluten allergy and gluten intolerance.


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