What is the difference? Food Allergy vs. Food Sensitivity

food allergy, food sensitivity, food allergy and food sensitivity

Have you heard the terms “food allergy” and “food sensitivity” being tossed around left and right? Believe it or not, these terms are not interchangeable and the differences are important!

What is the main difference?

The difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity starts with the body’s response to that food. When you are allergic to a food, your body’s reaction is caused by your immune system. When you are sensitive to a food, your body’s digestive system causes the reaction. Another important distinction is that food sensitivities are not life-threatening while food allergies definitely can be. The confusing part? Food sensitivities can cause similar signs and symptoms as food allergies.

Food Sensitivities

Did you or your little one accidentally consume a food that they are sensitive to? You might be able to get away without any major reactions. But you might be wondering, what causes food sensitivities?

According to the James T C Li, MD, PhD, from the Mayo Clinic, some of the most common causes of food sensitivities are:

  • The absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Sensitivity to food additives
  • Recurring stress/psychological factors
  • Celiac disease

An example of a common food sensitivity is lactose intolerance. This is when your body cannot break down lactose, the main carbohydrate in dairy products, because their body doesn’t make enough lactase, the enzyme needed to break down lactose.

How do you know if you’re sensitive to a food? The signs and symptoms will vary based on the food and the person. Judith Marcin, MD, of Healthline, identifies the most common symptoms:

  • Gas and bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Cramping
  • Nausea

Food Allergies

Food allergies are immune-related so the consequences of consuming a food that you are allergic to can be much more severe – sometimes even life threatening. According to Judith Marcin, MD, of Healthline, the body’s immune system identifies a protein in the food that you’re allergic to as an invader (like a bacteria, fungus, or virus) and will react by producing antibodies to attack it.

Like food sensitivities, the signs and symptoms of food allergies can vary based on the food and the person. Marcin identifies some of the most common food allergy symptoms:

  • Skin reactions (hives, swelling, itching, etc.)
  • Anaphylaxis (difficulty breathing, wheezing, dizziness, death)
  • Digestive symptoms

What are the most common food allergies? According to the Mayo Clinic, 90% of allergic reactions are caused by:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Wheat

You are in luck because, thanks to the FDA, these food allergies are always included on the label. Be sure to double and triple check food labels so that you know what you’re eating and/or feeding your little one!


“Food Allergies: Food Labels List the Top 8 Allergens.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 Nov. 2016, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/food-allergy/in-depth/food-allergies/art-20045949.

Li, James T C. “Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance: What’s the Difference?” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 3 June 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/food-allergy/expert-answers/food-allergy/faq-20058538.

Marcin, Judith. “Food Allergy vs. Sensitivity: What’s the Difference?” Healthline, Healthline Media, 20 Nov. 2015, www.healthline.com/health/allergies/food-allergy-sensitivity-difference#food-sensitivities.

West, Helen. “Lactose Intolerance 101 – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 24 June 2017, www.healthline.com/nutrition/lactose-intolerance-101#section1.


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