Allergy or Sensitivity: What's The Difference?

When you’re rushing through a hectic day, it’s easy to reach for quick, pre-prepared products that (hopefully) contain as many nutrients as possible. Many products do meet those requirements, however, in the quest for quick, easy, and nutritious, you may be unwittingly getting a lot of things you don’t want, like highly processed ingredients, additives, and potential allergens or sensitivity-aggravating ingredients. 

Eating clean has become commonplace, and refers to the practice of eating whole, natural foods like vegetables, fruits, and complex carbohydrates. Eating clean also means choosing foods that have undergone minimal amounts of processing retaining as close to the same nutrient profile as when first harvested. 

Allergy or Sensitivity: What’s The Difference?

Many people—whether they know it or not—have sensitivities to ingredients that are abundant in the modern, processed food diet. The reactions from food sensitivities vary so greatly that many people remain unaware their sensitivities to one or many of these ingredients are the cause of their wellness challenges. 

Food allergies—potentially life-threatening reactions involving an immune system response—are not the same as food intolerances or ingredient sensitivities, or as common. Food intolerances and ingredient sensitivities develop gradually and do not trigger the immune system (one exception is celiac disease—gluten intolerance—which does trigger an immune response, generating predominantly gastrointestinal symptoms, rather than the itching, hives or anaphylaxis associated with allergies). Although the symptoms of ingredient sensitivities are less severe than those of allergies, over time they can undermine health and well-being, manifesting as headaches, mild flu-like symptoms, low energy, or difficulty shedding body fat.

Food sensitivities can occur at any point in life—the exact cause of them remains unknown. Some theories suggest food sensitivities are a result of poor dietary habits, enzyme deficiencies, toxins, stress, or modern food-processing technology. One predominant theory is that overconsumption of the same ubiquitous ingredients over time may lead to a future sensitivity. 

Identifying Intolerances and Sensitivities

If you have chronic, inexplicable, low-grade health challenges, food intolerances or sensitivities may be responsible. The best way to find out if you have sensitivities is to systematically eliminate common culprits such as dairy, gluten and soy from your diet. Eliminate one at a time for a minimum of two weeks; if you notice no improvement, move on to the next suspected food or ingredient until you either notice an improvement, or feel confident you’ve ruled out food intolerances or sensitivities as the cause of your health challenges. 

Note that as with any dietary change, you should consult your physician, naturopath or holistic nutritionist to address concerns specific to your individual wellness needs. As every person is different, your body may need more than two weeks to adjust to an elimination—you may wish to eliminate suspicious foods or ingredients for a longer period of time.

Interpreting Food Labels for Sensitivity-Aggravating Ingredients

Sensitivity-aggravating foods and ingredients are not always listed clearly on a food label, so here is a quick guide to what to look for on a food label when you’re avoiding dairy, gluten and soy:


Dairy intolerance may have many causes, like an enzyme deficiency (lactose) or an allergy to milk, especially the milk protein casein. 

Potential dairy ingredients:

 besides milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese; dairy may also be in canned foods, lunch meats, powdered drink mixes, chocolate, chocolate flavoring, soup stock, chewing gum, breads, baking mixes, and artificial sweeteners. 


Wheat is the most intolerant grain containing more gluten than any other grain, but it’s not the only gluten-containing grain to watch out for; here’s a bigger (though not exhaustive) list.

Gluten-containing ingredients: 

wheat, barley, rye and some oats, triticale, spelt, bulgur, farina, couscous, seitan, tempeh, vegetable or hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified food starch, artificial/natural flavoring, caramel color, hydrolyzed plant protein, seasonings, dextrin, and maltodextrin. 


Often listed by any other name but its own, soy is used in flavorings and as a binder in many products. 

Potential soy ingredients:

 soy protein, texturized vegetable protein (TVP), hydrolyzed vegetable protein, natural and artificial flavoring, vegetable starch or gum, and hydrolyzed plant protein. 


If all this talk about food intolerances and sensitivities and the notion that aggravating ingredients lurk in so many processed foods seems overwhelming, you can relax knowing that more companies like Vega are working hard to develop products that are both nutrient-dense and free of dairy, gluten and soy. Even if you discover you have a sensitivity to one or more of these ingredients, you won’t lack convenient options. For example, Vega One provides clean nutrition in an all-in-one supplement that delivers complete protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and 50% of daily intake needs for vitamins and minerals—all without dairy, gluten, and soy, and it’s free of artificial flavors, colors and sweeteners, too.

Article courtesy of, by Vegan Ironman Triathlete Brendan Brazier, found here.

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