Food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities

Food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities

This is an issue I have strong feelings about so I thought it was time to say something about it.

I sit in camp one; I have an allergy to nuts.  This wonderful allergy means that I was have always been very good at reading the back on packets to see if what I wanted to buy contained nuts or had traces of nuts.  It sucks, really it does, I have to go so far as to read what my shampoo, soap and deodorant contains, it can be problematic at times.  I know there are far worse things to have allergies to so I won’t complain … well, I will but not too much. 

 We got a great surprise last year when we discovered the little man in our family (my step son) appears to have developed a sensitivity to nuts, as I have no input to his genetic make-up I can’t be blamed on this one.  I have to admit I was intrigued that he developed sensitivity all of a sudden; he had never been interested in or liked nuts but never had any issue with them, as far as we know there are no other family members with nut allergies so the fact he had eaten them then had a reaction was odd. I decided to find out what can trigger a reaction so I did some reading.

 I know and understand the basic science around sensitivities and reactions, the body attacks the item of food the same way it does a foreign bacteria or a virus. Sadly, the information out there doesn't have much about food allergies and sensitivities here in New Zealand. There is a heap of information out there from across the world and I have to admit I was really shocked at how many people are developing food allergies and intolerances. Now I know that in some cases people are self-diagnosed, so the true numbers may never be known.  There are hundreds of websites about different allergies and intolerances, new companies popping up all over the world that can test you for sensitivities. 

 One stat that made me stop in my tracks was the result of a school-based survey in 2013 that found over 8% of school kids reported they had an allergy to one or more food.  I know that schools here in New Zealand are taking steps to minimise the risks to their student by banning some foods from lunchboxes because so many children have allergies and sensitivities. While trooping around the interweb I found a heap of people talking about their reactions to food and the reactions their children were having to things like;

  • Lactose

  • Wheat

  • Gluten

  • Rice

  • Egg

  • Sugar

  • Nuts

  • Yeast

  • Soy

I remember being weird for not being able to eat nuts (well I was weird because of other things too but that is not the point) it was completely unusual to have an allergy or sensitivity to food when I was younger, that sadly is not the case now.  The stats differ from source to source but there seems to be a consensus that allergies are on the up across the globe.

From everything I've read, no one knows why we are seeing this increase in food allergies and sensitivities, there are plenty of theories about potential causes but nothing that would suggest a way to reduce the number of people developing allergies or prevent us from developing them in the first place. I don't have any answers but I do hope that one day someone can help those of us who have allergies and sensitivities.

So if we aren’t able to prevent people developing sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies what can we do? I think a key difference we can make is educating people. Those of us who live with these things every day understand the consequences of eating the wrong things; we avoid them at all costs. 

Unfortunately, that is only one part of the equation; one of the major concerns I have is the lack of understanding of those who do not suffer, especially those who are responsible for serving food.  I believe that there should be more information about how dangerous allergies are and how their actions can put those of us who have allergies in harm's way. 

The first step is helping people to understand the difference between food sensitivity, intolerances, and allergies because they are different.

We can start with an allergy, this is an immune reaction to a food, this is similar to how the body fights infection it’s just that the body uses its defenses to attack a food. An allergic reaction could be something mild like itching or hives; on the other hand, it could be something as severe as anaphylaxis which causes swelling of the throat and tongue, trouble breathing and dizziness. The more you are exposed to an allergen the more severe a reaction can become.

Food intolerance is when your body is missing a vital enzyme needed to process a specific food, there are symptoms associated with food intolerance, usually some form of gastric distress or inflammation, prolonged exposure to foods you cannot process can lead to intestinal damage but it cannot trigger anaphylaxis.   

So that leaves food sensitivities, these are a little more board, you can have an unpleasant reaction to food like reflux brought on my spicy foods, headaches or bloating, sensitivities are not fun but they are not life-threatening.

The second step is educating those who are responsible for serving food about safe food practices and ensuring that food service establishments fully understand and compile with safe practices. I recently completed the Basic Food Handling course that staff in New Zealand are supposed to attend, the course is very detailed on what the safe food practices are but there is very little information included about food allergies, what they are, what you should do and how to prevent cross-contact of foods.

I'm talking about cross-contact, not to be confused with cross contamination.  Cross contamination when foods are mixed, like raw meat with cooked meat  cross-contamination is explained and clear information is provided about how to prevent it, cross contact is not explained and it is not highlighted how dangerous it can be.

Cross-contact happens when one food comes into contact with another food and their proteins mix, each food then contains a small amount of the other food, what people don't always understand is that even this tiny amount of food that is transferred can cause reactions in people with food allergies.  Unlike cross contamination, cooking food does not remove allergens; the only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid any food that has come into contact with an allergen source. 

Most cross contact is accidental, using the same thong to pick up a piece of cake that was used to pick up a nut and seed slice or using the same spatula to flip a cheeseburger as you use for a hamburger.  I would like to think that this kind of cross contact is rare, sadly it isn't, and when you flag that something like that had occurred the response I'd never good.

I think that information about cross-contact should included as part of the food safety training, there are a number of simple things that can be done to prevent cross contact and make it safer for those with allergies to eat out.

  • Educate food service staff in what allergies and intolerances are and what safe food practice is.

  • Using utensils, cutting boards and pans that have been thoroughly washed with soap and water when working with allergens.

  • Using separate utensils and dishes for making and serving safe foods. Some families choose a different

  • If you are making several foods, cook the allergy-safe foods first.

  • Keep the safe foods covered and away from other foods that may splatter.

  • If food has come into contact with an allergen make it clear that the food may cause a reaction.

  • Clearly label foods and state any allergens on the menu

  • Wash your hands with soap and water before touching anything else if you have handled a food allergen. Soap and water or commercial wipes will remove a food allergen.

  • Scrub down counters and tables with soap and water after making meals.

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