Google+ Allergy-Free Vintage Cookery: What's the Difference Between Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities?


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What's the Difference Between Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities?

Vintage Red-Handled Rolling Pin at Etsy

Although the term "food allergy" is often used to refer to both allergies and sensitivities, there is a distinct difference between the two.

Food allergy produces an immediate reaction when an offending food is ingested, or sometimes even touched or inhaled.  Peanut allergy is the most commonly-known food allergy, and most members of the general public understand that this type of allergic reaction is life-threatening and requires an immediate response.  In these cases, the body perceives a particular food as a poisonous invader, and reacts dramatically to try to purge it.  Symptoms can include vomiting, swelling, hives, migraines, or anaphylactic shock.  Occasionally, delayed gastrointestinal symptoms also result, including nausea or diarrhea that can continue for hours or days.

Food sensitivity (or intolerance) on the other hand, most often produces delayed reactions, hours or even days after the offending food is ingested.  In these instances, the body is unable to break down a particular food, and large particles pass through the digestive system, fermenting and occasionally creating holes in the intestinal walls.  When more large food particles pass through the intestinal walls undigested, the body again perceives that there is an invader present, and reacts as though it has been poisoned.  Symptoms of food intolerance can include gas, bloating, stomach cramps, rashes, headaches, bedwetting, eczema, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, and even acne.

While food allergy is clearly life-threatening, food intolerance is also difficult to deal with, as it is lifestyle-threatening.  Many individuals are unwilling to make the necessary changes in their diets to avoid the foods to which they are sensitive, thinking that their symptoms are mild enough to ignore.  Unfortunately, long-term exposure to foods to which one is intolerant can cause severe illness, including iron deficiency, anemia, osteoporosis, thyroid disruption, obesity, heart disease, and even diabetes.  The inability of the body to absorb nutrients from these foods can result in malnutrition, even in people who believe they are getting enough to eat.

Both people with food allergy and food intolerance need support from the general public.  When a child with peanut allergy needs an arrangement made in a public place to protect him from peanut exposure, the reaction of the non-allergic public should be one of kindness and concern, not irritation.  When a parent of a child with a food sensitivity asks that alternative options be served for birthday snack at school, the reaction of the administration should be one of understanding, not blind adherence to regulations.  Both types of allergy are more difficult to deal with for the person who experiences their symptoms than they are for the person "inconvenienced" by changes made to accommodate the allergic individual.  As the saying goes, "Kindness, like a boomerang, always returns."  Isn't that a standard we should all strive to reach?

Shared with Rednesday at It's A Very Cherry World and Whole Health Weekend at Nourishing Treasures and Monday Mania at the Healthy Home Economist.


  1. Thank you for this very informative post. I have not found much I am allergic to. Some of my family has probelems.

  2. I came by just to drool over that red-handled rolling pin!


    I’ve nothing to give but my heart and head;
    No colors have I but yellow and red.

    Please take what I give as tokens of peace:
    And with these small gifts may your joy increase!

    © 2011 by Magical Mystical Teacher

    Red Temple Altar

  3. This is a very informative post. My son has sensitivities to dairy and this is the best explanation I have come across yet to what is going on for him. All the allergist did was tell us he didn't have an allergy and then acted like it was a non-issue. Do you know if small children can ever outgrow a sensitivity as they sometimes do an allergy. I've been told by out pediatrician to "test" him with dairy every month or two, but if there isn't any chance of out growing it I don't want to continue doing this. Up until now I've done it by ingesting a small amount of dairy myself (such as let myself indulge in a piece of milk chocolate or a cookie that isn't dairy-free) and then see if he reacts after nursing. So far he always does, even though I think the amount of cow's milk getting to him this way must be miniscule.

  4. Hi Folkhaven -- I've heard that small children often outgrow their food sensitivities, but I have not yet seen it with my children. Our allergist suggested we "challenge" or test the boys only after we had kept them off the offending foods for at least six months. It's crazy how such tiny amounts of food can produce a reaction, isn't it?! I've heard anecdotally that age five is generally when you see the allergies and sensitivities start to fade, but my kids are 7, 10 and 13 and I'm not really seeing it yet. Good luck to you! ~ Lisa

  5. I have recently discovered I have a bunch of food sensitivities....this is a really good description of the difference between allergy versus intolerance. It took me a while to understand the difference in the beginning!

  6. Hello - It appears I'm a little late to the party but I'm glad I got here. We learned a few years ago that my wife has serious issues with some foods that are not only uncommon allergens but are ubiquitous in packaged foods: garlic and onion are the primary offenders but also oat, strawberry and a number of others. One allergist we visited defined the difference between "allergy" and "intolerance" as one requires a trip to the ER and the other doesn't. We struggle constantly with this but I have created a pretty good menu for eating at home and we cautiously explore our dining out options. I just grabbed your carrot-ginger soup recipe which I will be trying out as a course for Easter dinner. Thanks for being here! I'll be back..


    1. Glad you made it to the party :) Hope your Easter guests enjoy the soup!