Achoo…Am I Just Sensitive or is it a Food Allergy?

allergy foods

Peanut free, lactose intolerant, gluten free.  If you have heard these terms before you may not understand exactly what the differences between them are.  If you have an allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity your body reacts to certain foods with adverse side effects that can create discomfort and sometimes serious medical conditions. This quick reference will help you understand the difference between the conditions but always remember to consult a physician if you suspect you are affected by a food.

Food Allergy

When a peanut is ingested by someone with a peanut allergy, the body, specifically the immune system, recognizes a chemical in the food called an allergen.  The immune system then targets that allergen and creates antibodies against causing an allergic reaction. Common responses to the allergen include: swollen lips, wheezing or breathing problems, vomiting and diarrhea.  The most common offenders are allergens found in cow’s milk, wheat, soy, eggs, peanuts, fish, shellfish, and tree nuts. Oftentimes children outgrow allergies or symptoms subside over time if they are related to milk, egg, wheat, or soy proteins.  Although 25% of adult Americans believe they have an allergy, less than 2% of the adult population actually do. Among infants, 2-8% may have an allergy (Cianferoni and Spergel 2009).  Allergies are commonly inherited.  Allergies should be taken seriously as they can cause discomfort and can even be deadly if not identified and managed properly.  Cross contamination can be a problem for those that suffer from allergies.This can happen when a person with a food allergy eats something that has come into contact with the source that causes the allergic reaction.  For example, if someone with a peanut allergy eats chocolate that was manufactured in a factory that creates and sells peanut chocolate bars, they can have a reaction because the equipment has been shared.  It is important to read labels as food items will say if they are processed on shared equipment.

Can you eat it?  If you have a true allergy (and that can be confirmed through testing by a doctor) then avoiding the allergen in its protein form is important.  The following University of Florida EDIS fact sheets are great resources when learning how to manage your allergy: 

Food Intolerance

Intolerances are recognized by the body’s metabolic system. The body can have a chemical deficiency therefore be unable to digest certain foods properly. Intolerances are more common than allergies.  Unlike allergies, intolerances worsen over time and with age, but at the same time people with intolerances can usually eat limited amounts of the offending food without negative results.  Lactose intolerance (from lactose found in cow’s milk and dairy products) and gluten intolerance (found in wheat and other grains that contain gluten) are food intolerances.  Gluten intolerance is not the same as Celiac’s Disease.  Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disease triggered by eating gluten (refer to Being Smart About Gluten and Gluten-Free Issues (PDF)and has more serious consequences, such as nutritional and gastrointestinal effects.  The reactions to an intolerance are similar to those of an allergic reaction and can include abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, etc. 

Food Sensitivity 

Sensitivities are a generic term and oftentimes include intolerances and allergies.  More specifically, someone may have an adverse reaction to eating products containing histamine or sulfates, which can produce symptoms similar to histamine reactions during an allergic response.  Sensitivities are most commonly associated with consuming spoiled fish, aged cheeses or red wine. 

Ultimately, allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities will affect an individual’s dietary habits differently. It is important for you to consult your physician to determine your condition.  It is essential for those with allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities, as well as caregivers to know the differences between each condition because such information is key to comfort and management of the condition.

For more resources about managing food allergies in schools click here! 


Elizabeth Shephard, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

Vanessa Spero-Swingle, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences


Cianferonia, A. and J. M. Spergel. 2009. Food Allergy: Review Classification and Diagnosis. Allerogology Internation. 58(4):457-466.

Dicks, A., Harder, A., Simonne, A. (2013)  WC133 Being Smart About Gluten and Gluten-Free Issues,Part1:What are the Health Concerns Surrounding Gluten? Retrieved from:

Holzinger, Jonathan; Shelnutt, Karla; Kauwell, Gail. (2013) FCS80020 Raising Healthy Children: Food Allergies. Retrieved from:

Schneider, K.R., Schneider, R.G., Ahn,  S.,  Richardson, S. (2014) FSHN5013 Dealing with Food Allergies. Retrieved from:

Simmonne, A., Gollub, E.A. (2013) FCS8781 Decoding Food Labels: People with Allergies.  Retrieved from: