Is it IBS or an allium intolerance?

Everyone can agree that the best part of eating is tasting the flavors. Sweet, savory, salty, rich, spicy — we all have preferences. Those who love to cook also believe they get the most compliments when onions and garlic are involved. Sadly, these fragrant ingredients are also known to irritate the stomach.

Garlic and onions belong to a category of foods called allium, flowering plants that come from a bulb. Allium plants originated in central Asia and give off distinctive flavors (a defensive mechanism against insects and microbes) when cut, bitten, or crushed. Most people are probably familiar with other allium vegetables such as shallots, leeks, chives, and scallions.

These aromatic bulbs also contain fructans, a type of sugar that can trigger IBS symptoms, which is one of the reasons why the Monash University (originators of the FODMAP diet) label some allium foods such as garlic, onions and the white portion of scallions and leeks in the high FODMAP (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols) category.

But there is also another reason some people — even those with a healthy gut — have difficulty digesting onions and garlic: allium intolerance. Similar to how lactose intolerance is caused by the body’s inability to digest the sugar in milk, allium intolerance is caused by the body’s inability to digest the sugars in alliums. Those who are allium intolerant are also unable to digest all members of the allium family, including shallots, leeks, chives and scallions.

People with allium intolerance can develop bloating, produce gas, and experience stomach pains.

Allium intolerance is not the same as a food allergy. Those with an allium intolerance do not go into anaphylaxis or produce histamines, that can trigger hives, rash, and itching. Instead, they develop bloating, produce gas and experience stomach pains. A blood test done by an allergist can determine whether someone is intolerant.

But just because some people have allium intolerance, doesn’t mean that they have to miss out on these flavors. There is a spice powder that completely mimics the taste of garlic and onions. Originally found in India, asafoetida is a dried resin powder made from various herbs. Asafoetida is not an allium nor is it high FODMAP. Before cooking, the powder has a pungent smell but once it is simmered in oil or a fat like butter, the smell and taste becomes more like onion and garlic.

Look for the spice in the local grocery markets, such as Wholefoods, Jewel, or Trader Joe’s. You can also find it online, such as in If you’re interested in cooking with asafoetida, IBS Life editors reached out to Cindy Tan of, who agreed to share her chili recipe that is spiced with asafoetida. Click here to read it.