What’s the Difference between a Food Allergy and a Food Sensitivity?

A food allergy is an immune system response that occurs when a person eats a specific food. The body mistakes the food for a foreign invader and produces antibodies to fight it. These antibodies can cause a range of symptoms, from mild to life-threatening. The most common immediate reaction to a food allergy is anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal condition that affects the respiratory system. Another common but less serious reaction is hives.

A food sensitivity is not an immune system response. It is a reaction that occurs when the body is unable to digest a food properly. This can cause a variety of symptoms, such as bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and headaches.

Most Common Food Allergens

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the 11 most common (priority) food allergies include peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, crustaceans, mollusks, and sulfites. These account for 90% of all food allergies.

However, there are many other food allergens that can cause an allergic reaction in some people. Priority allergens must be listed on food labels in Canada, but there is no such requirement for other allergens.

Most Uncommon Food Allergens

The most uncommon food allergens include bananas, beef, carrots, celery, corn, fish, garlic, ham, honey, lamb, lemon, lobster, malt, onion, orange, pork, pineapple, rice, salmon, shrimp, sugar, turkey, and vanilla.

Reading the ingredient list is the best way to determine if a food contains an allergen. However, some ingredients are not obvious. For example, if a food contains hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), it may not be obvious that this is derived from soy. But in Canada, soy must be listed on the label if HVP is derived from soy. Priority allergens are listed under the list of ingredients as a reminder. e.g., “contains soy”.

Corn products are often used as sweeteners, thickeners, flavourings and texturizers in foods. If you are allergic to corn, you need to be careful when eating packaged foods. And, since corn is not a priority allergen, it does not need to be identified on the label.

Cross-contamination and Spices

People with food allergies need to be careful about cross-contamination. This is when an allergen comes into contact with a food that is not supposed to contain it. For example, a person with a peanut allergy might not be able to eat food that has been prepared in a kitchen where peanuts were also prepared. This makes eating out at restaurants very difficult.

Some people have reactions to specific spices such as black pepper, cumin, chili powder, curry powder, and paprika. Spices are derived from a variety of plants. Paprika comes from the pepper family, so it is possible that people who are allergic to peppers may also be allergic to paprika.

Preservatives, Additives and Allergies

There are several food allergies that are not as commonly known about. These include allergies to food additives and preservatives like nitrites and celery extracts.

MSG is a flavour enhancer that is found in many packaged and processed foods especially Asian foods. Nitrites are used in processed meat products such as ham and bacon and can cause a reaction in people with asthma. Nitrites have also been linked to cancer in some studies.

Some preservatives like BHA and BHT are also known to cause reactions in some people. These are used to extend the shelf life of foods. Examples of foods that contain BHA and BHT are potato chips, cereal, baked goods, snack foods and gum. Sodium benzoate is another preservative that can cause a reaction in some people. It is used in pickles, canned fruits, and jams.

Sulfites are found in wine, cider, beer, and dried fruit.

Food for Thought

Some of these food allergens, such as bananas and honey, are not commonly associated with allergies making it much more difficult to figure out what you might be reacting to. A person who is allergic to bananas can have symptoms ranging from a mild rash to anaphylaxis.

Another example is honey. Some people are allergic to honey and will experience symptoms such as itchy skin, swelling of the lips or tongue and hives, not realizing it’s the honey, assuming instead that it’s the bread, or peanut butter.

If you think you might have a food allergy, it is important to see a doctor for testing, or you can also try an elimination diet to help identify the food allergen. This involves removing suspected foods from your diet for a period and then slowly adding them back in to see if there is a reaction.

Keeping a food diary is essential because it’s almost impossible to remember everything you’ve eaten throughout the day, especially if a product contains more than one ingredient. One meal like spaghetti and meat balls can contain more than 20 ingredients.

Other Concerns

Although no human studies have been done for GMO foods, some animal evidence suggests that GMOs can cause an increase in food allergies and other autoimmune diseases. GMO foods are those that have been genetically modified and are found in a lot of processed foods.

The best way to avoid GMO foods is to eat organic. You can also look for the Non-GMO Project Verified label on products to ensure they have been tested for GMO content. The most common GMO foods sold in Canada are corn, canola, soybeans, and sugar beets.

Can Seasonal Allergies be caused from Food Sensitivities?

Some people with seasonal allergies may be reacting to food sensitivities.

Because the reaction to a food sensitivity is often delayed and more subtle, it is more difficult to identify the trigger food.

Foods that are most associated with food sensitivities are dairy, gluten, and eggs. One of the proteins found in dairy that weakens the immune system is casein. When the immune system is weakened, it is more susceptible to seasonal allergies by causing an overreaction to pollen or dust. Dairy products can worsen seasonal allergies because they cause the body to produce more phlegm and mucus.

A person who is allergic to ragweed may also be allergic to chamomile tea. This is because chamomile is from the Asteraceae/Compositae family, which also includes ragweed.


Writing down what you eat, paying attention to reactions after, and keeping a diary is the best way to isolate a food sensitivity or allergy. There are also some self-test kits available online that can help you determine if you have a food allergy or sensitivity.

People with less common food allergies can find it difficult to avoid their allergen especially when consuming packaged, processed, or ready-to-eat foods because non-priority allergens do not need to be listed on labels.

Managing an uncommon food allergy can be difficult, but it is important to know that you are not alone. Food allergies are on the rise and affect millions of people in North America. Support groups and online forums can be a great resource for finding information and advice.

For more information on food allergies and labelling in Canada, please visit the CFIA website. MCLEAN deli meats are allergy friendly, free of wheat, dairy, and soy. They are also free of preservatives, such as nitrites and celery extracts. Please contact us directly if you need any specifics about ingredients in our products.

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