Food Allergies vs. Food Sensitivities


Food Allergies vs. Food Sensitivities

By Erin Roon, MA CCC-SLP

The topic of food allergies versus food sensitivities is one of the most confusing out there today. So many people use the words allergy and sensitivity interchangeably that it is no wonder there is so much confusion. With food sensitivities becoming increasingly prevalent in the population as a whole, and especially in children on the autism spectrum, it is important to understand the difference between allergies and sensitivities. While both can have a major effect on the health and well being of an individual, there are differences that need to be understood.

The first thing I try to do with when talking with parents about food allergies and sensitivities is to define the difference so that we can all be on the same page. So what is the difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity?

  • Food allergy – A food allergy causes an immediate response to an intolerable food substance. A good example of this is the child who is allergic to peanuts. S/He eats a peanut and immediately breaks out into hives, lips and tongue swell, coughing and sneezing begins, breathing is impaired, and an immediate injection of epinephrine may be needed. An allergic reaction might not be this severe, but tends to include one or more of these symptoms. Allergic reactions tend to be obvious and easy to recognize. Actual allergy testing may not be necessary to determine a food allergy due to the obvious and quick response to the given food. Typically, when a person is allergic to a particular food, it is at a minimum suggested that the food be eliminated from the diet; and at a maximum the food be avoided at all costs.
  • Food sensitivity – A food sensitivity usually causes a delayed response to an intolerable food substance. These types of reactions can take hours to days to appear, which makes it difficult to recognize them as a reactions to a particular food. Food sensitivity reactions can include gut inflammation, diarrhea, constipation, aggressions, and tiredness. Symptoms of food sensitivity can also look like extreme food cravings, or a diet limited to one food type. Detecting food sensitivities can take a lot of investigation and hard work on a parent’s part. It is not always clear what is causing tummy problems or certain behaviors. When a sensitivity to a particular food is discovered, that food may need to be eliminated from or rotated in a child’s diet. Food sensitivities are typically less immediately life threatening than food allergies can be, no less bothersome, and in need of detection and treatment.

The most common food allergies are milk, eggs, peanuts/nuts, fish, and wheat.
The most common food sensitivities are gluten, casein, soy, corn, eggs, peanuts, citrus, chocolate, and cane sugar. Other food sensitivities include tree nuts, seeds, beef, yeast, and tomatoes. As you can see there is some overlap in the common food allergies and sensitivities; but the difference lies in severity/type, and the time it takes to see a reaction.
If you suspect your child has a food allergy or sensitivity, please contact your health care provider, nutritionist, or consultant for testing and treatment advice. Also look to upcoming issues for a discussion of food allergy and sensitivity testing options, as well as treatment options.