by Katy Kappele
Food is supposed to be good for us, but for some, it can harm and even kill.
Food reactions are separated into two categories: intolerances and allergies.
“An allergy is a hypersensitivity of the immune system,” said Whatcom Community College nutrition teacher Kimberly Reeves. “An intolerance is a non-allergic food sensitivity that can lead to a variety of differing physiological responses.”
The Mayo Clinic online explains that food intolerances typically affect digestion, while allergies are a potentially life-threatening immune system reaction.
In other words, certain foods can affect different people in different ways. In the case of allergies, this can be anything from itching and hives to bloating and diarrhea, to anaphylactic shock and even death. Many people mistakenly assume they have an allergy when they have a food intolerance.
Some food allergies are mild. “I’m allergic to vinegar,” said Dora Dodson, 20, a Whatcom student. “I put a drop on my tongue and my throat feels weird.”
Alex Sands, 19, is adversely affected by pears. “It depends on the pears,” he said. “Asian pears make me itchy and red where the juice touches. Bartlett pears are an itchy, swollen throat.”
Other allergies are more severe, and people may react like people who are allergic to bee stings.
Allergies and intolerances may emerge any time during a person’s life. One allergist explained that the body is like a bucket, and people can dump allergens into the bucket and be fine, but at some point it will overflow. At this point, people experience symptoms. Some people have very small buckets, and, for example, can have reactions to just smelling peanuts on an airplane.
According to the Mayo Clinic online, milk, eggs, peanuts and other tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat as the most common food allergens in the United States. These are ingredients the Food and Drug Administration requires to be specially noted in the nutrition facts section of the product’s label. The FDA requires anything labelled as allergen-free to be made in a separate factory from those that process said allergen, because of the high sensitivity of some allergy sufferers.
Given that a tiny amount of an allergen can be very dangerous, Reeves advises that allergy sufferers stay away from anything with a label warning them that a product was manufactured near that allergen.
Food intolerances, such as those to lactose, in milk, and gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains, cover the spectrum from annoying to life-threatening. Gluten intolerances are on the rise, says Dr. Dominique Coulet du Gard, in part because “GMO wheat has four times the amount of gluten” of normal wheat.
Alejandro Palomino, 28, has recently become lactose intolerant. He said that about a year after he became a vegan, he tried to eat dairy again, and found that he had developed one of the more common food intolerances.
“It bothers my stomach,” Palomino said. “That’s about as much detail as I want to go into. It’s very common among vegans.”
Celiac disease is a condition where, when a person ingests wheat or other grains containing gluten, the small intestine can shut down and fail to absorb nutrients. Eating a slice of bread or a bowl of pasta could be death sentence for these people, but what most don’t realize is that a person with celiac disease can be severely impacted by food cooked on the same surfaces that have touched foods containing gluten.
This, understandably, can be very hard to avoid. We tend to cook our food without thinking what might have been on the counter an hour ago. We eat tofu from the same grill where steaks were prepared just minutes ago.
For people with food intolerances, this isn’t so much of a problem. A person with lactose intolerance, for example, may get an upset stomach if she has a little bit of milk in her coffee by mistake. A person with a life-threatening allergy such as to peanuts or shrimp can die if there is a little bit still on the grill from the last person who had peanut shrimp.
For people with food sensitivities, eating out can be difficult to impossible. Some live in fear that a well-meaning waiter will not understand that gluten is not just in wheat bread, but also in white bread, and anything made from wheat, barley, quinoa, rye, spelt, and a variety of other grains. There is even a minimal amount of gluten in soy. A person with gluten intolerance cannot consume beer because it is made with hops and barley, both of which contain gluten.
For those with food allergies or intolerances, avoiding problem foods can be difficult, but there is help out there. There are periodic gluten-free fairs in Bellingham. The Food Co-op, Terra Organica, and special sections of grocery stores carry foods that are gluten-free or lactose-free.