The rise of food allergies

One in two people suffers from a hidden food allergy. Find out if you are one of them.” Patrick Holford, advocate of alternative nutrition and diet methods

I was travelling on Ryanair – I think it was three or four years ago – and we were told that nobody was allowed to eat peanuts aboard because one of the passengers suffered from peanut allergy. And indeed it may well be the case that studies have been unable to detect peanut particles in the air in sufficient amounts to cause a reaction. However, one of my students, whose son was also allergic to peanuts, explained that if I had been eating peanuts and I had then touched his face, he would have had a severe reaction. John O’Farrell wrote a satirical novel a few ago, called May Contain Nuts in which he satirised modern parental paranoia, but for anyone with this problem, it is all too real.

Our interest in allergies does seem like a modern phenomenon, but the remains of a woman who died 2,000 years ago in Cosa, on the Tuscan coast in Italy tell a fascinating story. This area, which was not especially prosperous, was important for wheat-growing. The 20-year-old woman, who would have stood at 1m 40cm centimetres, appeared to be quite wealthy – archaeologists discovered gold and bronze jewellery buried with her. DNA analysis demonstrated that the woman carried two copies of an immune system gene variant that is associated with coeliac disease. Her skeleton showed signs of malnutrition and osteoporosis both can be complications of untreated coeliac disease. By analysing her bones the researcher were able to conclude the woman had tried to change her diet to cope with her condition

What is going on today? I’m sure you will have had this discussion. When I was growing up I don’t remember so many food allergies. Now they are said to affect between 5% and 10% of the populations of developing countries. A food allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. This might be mild skin reactions and respiratory distress, through to life-threatening reactions. Food allergies should not be confused with food intolerance, a less serious condition that does not involve the immune system. Severe food allergies do exist, but it is also true that many more people, 30% of the population believe they have one, than actually do.

What are the causes of this trend? One school of thought is that we are just too clean. According to Wikipedia, the hygiene hypothesis states that “a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms (such as the gut flora or probiotics), and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system.” And because of fear we are delaying the introduction of allergenic foods such as egg, peanut or tree nuts. Moreover we now eat more processed foods than ever and this may be affecting our immune system. Finally skin exposure to unrefined nut oil based moisturisers has been blamed. But these theories have not yet been demonstrated

Whenever there is a problem there are solutions. The food industry has given us gluten & wheat-free, milk-free, egg-free nut-free and very soon I’m sure nutrient-free. Next week Rotterdam will be hosting Free-From Food Expo 2016. I am a bit sceptical about these products. You always need to see what they are replacing the harmful substance with. Sugar-free sweets, for example, contain a chemical called lycasin which has a laxative effect. Consumers may believe that free-from means total absence, which is not the case. There was a wonderful example on QI earlier this year. The principal ingredient of sugar-free Tic Tacs is … sugar. This is because, according to the FDA, if there is only half a gram of sugar in a serving it is sugar-free.

Then alternative medicine has got into the act. This is just the type of terrain in which it thrives. We don’t know exactly what is going on and what the solutions are. Alternative medicine becomes the medicine of the gaps. Unfortunately naturopaths and their ilk do not diagnose allergies in evidence-based ways. Their methods are either not proven to work or proven not to work. Blood tests cannot identify food sensitivities. Then there is applied kinesiology which involves holding a suspected allergen and then pressing down on that limb. Muscle weakness is said to signify an allergy. Dr. Jimmie Scott of Health Kinesiology has pioneered the Allergy Tap™ method. The practitioner “places the offending substance over a specific acupuncture point on the belly and taps eight pairs of specific acupuncture points.” You can even do the Allergy Tap™ for yourself after buying the materials and doing a course. Scott claims that it can “eliminate allergies, release physical toxicity, emotional traumas, overcome learning blocks, & perform at your best, among other things. The tennis player Novak Djokovic was diagnosed with gluten intolerance using this kind of technique. Another line is Vega Testing. Vega machines are a type of electroacupuncture device, which they say can diagnose allergies and other illnesses. Here is a video showing the device in action:

Once again there is no evidence that it can identify allergies at all. There are others such as cytotoxic testing, hair analysis and a pulse test (this involves measuring the pulse before and after eating a suspected allergen). They all have little basis. It would be great if a simple blood test could offer a reliable shortcut. In The Guardian Alex Renton describes a visit to London’s Hale Clinic, an alternative therapy centre near Harley Street:

“It is amazing. I have won the hypochondriac lottery. I’m the owner of 29 different allergies, sensitive to substances from MSG to strawberries and including such regulars in my life as milk, chicken, wheat dust, red and green peppers, cheese, peanuts, honey, lentils, brewer’s yeast, lactose, various grasses, cat hair, tobacco and “summer and fall pollens”. The fact that I believe I have no hay fever or allergy is not of importance. I am aghast. I don’t know where to start. Cheese? I love cheese. “But your body doesn’t,” says Linda, wagging a finger.”

And of course you have celebrities and no-one does it better than Gwyneth Paltrow. She has her own line of gluten-free ready meals and three years ago she published a cookbook, It’s All Good. What inspired her was being on death’s door after eating too many chips. Paltrow thought she was suffering a stroke, but was actually diagnosed with a migraine and a panic attack. After a battery of tests, her doctor certified that she was allergic to just about everything. This is Hollywood neuroticism and pseudoscience in its purest form. It was pointed out that to eat as Paltrow suggests would cost $300 a day.

There are no easy answers to this problem. If you are allergic to a food at the moment the only solution is to abstain. Hopefully, science will get a better understanding of what is going on. We need to be looking for food diversity in our diets from an early age to keep our gut microbes as healthy as possible. Fermented plant-based foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and soy sauce are good. Beans should play a big role in our diet too. And without going to his extremes Novak Djokovic’s diet sounds pretty good. The world No 1’s diet is based on vegetables, beans, white meat, fish, fruit, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, lentils and healthy oils.

 

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