Food sensitivity vs allergies: there's a difference

By Chloe McLeod, leading Australian dietitian

May 13, 2019
Food sensitivity vs allergies: there's a difference

How to find out the difference between food sensitivity and an allergy

What is the difference between a food sensitivity and a food allergy? Two terms that refer to similar, yet very different things – and the difference could be a game changer for you!

First of all, what is a food allergy?

An allergy is when the immune system reacts to a substance, such as a food, and results in the production of allergy antibodies. In someone allergic, a reaction then occurs, such as hives, swelling of the lips, eyes or face, vomiting or wheeze. Allergic reactions can range from mild to severe, with anaphylaxis the most severe form of allergic reaction.

It is important to remember that not everyone with allergy antibodies will develop symptoms following exposure to the allergen, hence confirmation of allergy by a clinical immunology/allergy specialist is required.

Food allergies are diagnosed usually through a skin prick test, sometimes followed by a food challenge with a specialist doctor, an Allergist or Immunologist.

It’s important to remember that an allergy is an immune response, and none of that food is able to be tolerated without symptoms appearing. However, particularly in child food allergy, most children will grow out of their cow’s milk, soy, wheat or egg allergy over time.

What about a sensitivity?

A food intolerance, or food sensitivity occurs when only a small amount of a food, or a compound in a food is able to be tolerated. The reaction occurs usually due to the body’s inability to digest the food, causing it to malabsorb, or ferment, or it may be due to irritation to nerve endings. One of the most common of food intolerances, or sensitivities, is lactose intolerance.

If your symptoms match a sensitivity to lactose, it’s recommended that you visit a dietitian or GP first to get a professional opinion, particularly if you are experiencing more severe symptoms. Food sensitivity is best diagnosed through an elimination diet, followed by specific challenges under the guidance of a specialist dietitian."

How does dairy fit in?

It is common for people to blame ‘dairy’ in general for the sensitivity they are experiencing, however this is not necessarily correct. Cow's milk allergy is common, particularly in children, however it is usually grown out of. Lactose intolerance is also incredibly common, with sensitivity able to develop at any age. Those with lactose sensitivity can tolerate small amounts of dairy, they simply need to be careful of how much lactose is consumed. We are so lucky to have so many great products on the market for people who feel sensitivity to lactose, such as Zymil’s range of lactose free milk, yoghurt, custard and cream. The great thing about the Zymil milk range is it actually tastes like real milk, and has all the goodness of regular milk. All Zymil products can easily be tolerated by someone with lactose intolerance or sensitivity and can ease the queasy stomach feeling, so you don’t need to miss out on your favourite dairy based meals, or deal with flavour and nutrition changes if alternatives are used.

Without the presence of lactose, Zymil is the dairy milk choice that’s easy to digest*, with all the goodness of regular dairy milk.

Please note that if you are experiencing more severe symptoms, it’s a good idea to take a pit stop at your GP. They can then refer you on to a dietitian to help work through any intolerances, and gastroenterologist who can undertake any further investigation that may be needed.

Food sensitivity vs allergies: there's a difference

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Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, Food Allergy, 2016

* As part of a healthy varied diet, consuming Zymil products instead of regular dairy products helps to ease digestion in those who are sensitive to lactose.

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Chloe McLeod
Accredited Practicing Dietitian

Chloe McLeod