What’s the difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity?


Ah, the question we hear the most! The world of adverse food reactions is quite large, complex, and confusing. We are here to lessen the burden and help you have a better understanding of what is going on in your body. While some people spend most of their lives studying immunology, for the general public we feel it is important to review some of the basics.

There are many differences and similarities between a food allergy and a food sensitivity. The two conditions can briefly be explained as an inappropriate response of the immune system that results in symptoms throughout the body. The symptoms are a result of defensive chemicals called inflammatory mediators that are released into tissues and circulation by the courageous and heroic white blood cells (WBCs), seemingly protecting the body from the “threatening invader” (i.e. harmless food).

While the basic process of an allergy and sensitivity is somewhat similar and both involve an over-reactive immune system, we know that allergies and sensitivities present very differently.

Oh, okay, that clears it all up!

Just kidding…

Let’s dive a bit deeper into this topic so you can feel confident giving your elevator speech the next time someone asks you this question.


Food allergy is typically occurring from the mast cells (a type of WBC) of the immune system and the response is primarily led by the histamine reaction. Histamine…I’m sure you’ve heard that term before…maybe you have used anti-histamines like Benadryl to help treat an allergic response.

Anyway, food allergies effect about 6% of children and 2-4% of adults. There are many “classic” foods that generate symptoms for >90% of those people. The top 8 food allergens include wheat, soy, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, and milk. With just 1 molecule of exposure, an allergic person may experience a response quite immediately. Common symptoms associated with food allergies include hives, itching, swelling, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, and even anaphylactic shock which can cause death.

Quite scary stuff!

There are a few ways to help someone figure out if he/she has a food allergy, but to be honest, most people are good at figuring this out on their own. The response is very predictable and replicable. Very quickly, the allergic individual knows to stay away from that food. However, if one went to see an Allergist for testing, there are 3 main ways to identify a food allergy. There is the skin prick test, RAST test, and the gold standard medically supervised elimination diet.

After you are diagnosed with a food allergy, it is wise to strictly avoid this food. Some children outgrow their food allergies and some adults develop new allergies as they age. It is important to check with your doctor before deciding to challenge (aka eat) a food you are allergic to.


Let’s switch gears and review some of the unique features of a food sensitivity. This topic is much more complex, controversial, and prevalent! At this time, there is no well-defined method to diagnose food sensitivities so the exact prevalence is not known. However, food sensitivities are estimated to impact up to 25% of people.

In food allergy, there were the top 8 foods that seemed to impact most sufferers. On the other hand, ANY food can potentially cause a food sensitivity. Not only does that complicate things, but food sensitivities are also dose-dependent. While just 1 molecule of an allergic food may provoke a reaction, sensitivities are often produced upon a specific exposure dose, and this dose ranges from person to person! For example, maybe 3 almonds are fine, but eating ½ cup of almond butter is no good.

Let’s complicate things even more…food sensitivities also have a delayed response time. Unlike allergies where the response is rather immediate after consumption of the food, sensitivity reactions may occur 4 to 72-hours post-consumption! Allergy responses are usually predictable and replicable, but food sensitivities produce more of the chronic type symptoms people just “accept” as their norm. Things like migraines, skin rashes, brain fog, digestive difficulties, chronic pain and inflammation, food cravings…the list goes on and on.

As for testing, there are a wide array of panels out on the market to assess for food sensitivities. You may see tests like IgG testing, ALCAT testing, MRT testing, even muscle testing that all claim to offer the best assessment. I’ll be honest with you, there is not yet one validated method proven to be the “best assessment” for food sensitivities.

At Food Sensitivity Solutions, we utilize MRT testing for a variety of reasons (which I’ll save for an entirely new blog post) because we are confident in the results we get with our clients. Time and time again people suffering from food sensitivities try all sorts of diets without much relief. After completing MRT testing and utilizing our specific and systemized elimination diet, clients finally achieve the health they are looking for! Don’t believe us? Check out our testimonials page. MRT is an accurate and reliable testing method used by thousands of people across the country.

Below is a summary chart to help guide you through this topic.

Description Common Foods Common Symptoms How to test
Food Allergy IgE-mediated immune response, histamine reaction Top 8 food allergies: wheat, soy, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, milk Immediate response, 1 molecule can provoke reaction: hives, itching, swelling, eczema, trouble breathing, anaphylaxis RAST test (IgE response- may determine in up to 50% of cases), skin prick test, medically supervised oral challenge
Food Sensitivity Type 3 or 4 hypersensitivity, immune-mediated response, >100 chemical mediators involved, challenging to diagnose Can be any food or food chemical Delayed reaction (4-72hrs after ingestion), dose-dependent response: GI- symptoms, migraine, pain, mood issues, eczema, etc. Elimination challenge, muscle testing, IgG test, ALCAT, MRT

Stay tuned for more education articles keeping you up to date all on things food sensitivity!

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