When you feel you have problems with certain foods, it’s important to understand the difference between food sensitivity and food allergy. It’s quite common for people to have physical reactions to some of the foods they eat, but it’s not necessarily cause for concern. If your body doesn’t tolerate some types of food, you’ll simply have to avoid them so you won’t feel uncomfortable.

If you’re sensitive to certain foods, you may experience some of the same early symptoms as you would if you’re truly allergic to those foods. This is when it becomes important to understand the difference. Stop for just a moment and ask: Is it food sensitivity or food allergy? It’s quite easy, and common, to confuse these reactions.

Allergy vs. Sensitivity

When your body is truly allergic to a food, the immune system will react and several major organs may be affected. The reaction may be life-threatening, or severe enough to cause you to question your physical safety. By contrast, when your body does not tolerate some foods, the reaction won’t be quite so serious. You may experience digestive difficulty and feel generally uncomfortable, but the symptoms usually don’t go beyond that.

Many people can deal with a food sensitivity or intolerance by eating small amounts of the food, which won’t cause problems. One of the most common sensitivities is intolerance for lactose, which is found in milk and other dairy products. You can consume milk that’s lactose-free or you can take pills that will aid digestion. These add an enzyme to your system that is missing in your body. If it was present naturally it would help digest the food.

You may experience what medical professionals call irritable bowel syndrome when you eat some foods. This can cause cramps, and may result in either diarrhea or constipation. You may also suffer more extreme digestive problems with some foods or react strongly to food additives, such as sulfites in wine and some fruit. Celiac disease is sometimes associated with food intolerance or allergy, so you should consult with your doctor if this is the case.


If you are truly allergic to certain foods or a specific ingredient in a processed food, you could be at risk of a life-threatening reaction. One of the recognized reactions is anaphylaxis. This severe condition can have symptoms such as rash, slowing of the pulse, even shock. Because it can be fatal, it must be treated immediately. Two of the most common causes are tree nuts/peanuts and bee stings.

If you have this reaction to peanuts or other nuts, or to bee stings, you should consult with your doctor and discuss treatment. Some individuals must carry a medication (epinephrine) in an epi-pen at all times, so they’re prepared for future reactions. If the problem is “only” intolerance, you may have to use a digestive aid or simply avoid those foods in the future.

In either case, it’s essential to understand the difference between food allergy and food sensitivity.