The terms food intolerance and food allergy are often used interchangeably, but experts want you to know there is a crucial difference – which could be a matter of life or death.

Experts at Consumer Reports want people to know that there is no such thing as a person being “a little” allergic to a particular food. More likely, they’re suffering from food intolerance.

What’s the difference?

Food intolerance disturbs the digestive system while a food allergy attacks the immune system.

A study found that 19 per cent of people believed they had a food allergy when in reality - only 11 per cent actually had a genuine food allergy.

“People with intolerances can still eat the food without serious consequences, but for someone with an allergy, touching, inhaling, or ingesting even a microscopic amount of the allergenic food can be deadly,” said Lauren Friedman, Consumer Reports health editor.

If you think you may be suffering, seek medical advice from an allergist. Extra precautions must be taken with food allergies as they can be potentially life-threatening; this includes carrying medication on hand in case of an allergic reaction.

“If it’s not a food allergy, I think it’s important to speak to your physician and possibly, keep a log of you symptoms, keep a log of your diet, identify what are the foods that are not making you feel as well,” said allergist Dr. Jen Camacho.

Consumer Reports says intolerance could stem from a variety of reasons, such as irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease or sensitivity to food additives. It may cause some discomfort, but it’s not fatal.

It’s also important to keep in mind food allergies and intolerances can develop after childhood. Nearly half of those with food allergies in the study reported the onset of a new one in adulthood.

Health Canada lists peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs and seafood as several of the most common food allergens.

Finally, be extra careful in the kitchen if you or a loved one has a food allergy. Cross contamination can trigger an allergic reaction. And remember, clean surfaces with warm, soapy water and wash your hands properly.