I’m writing this from the quad, where I’m surrounded by students lounging in the sun. It’s February and spring is already starting (one of the many reasons why I love California). As the weather warms up and the trees begin to bloom, many of us will start to cough and sneeze. As annoying as hay fever is, it is nothing compared to food allergies.
Food allergies are immune responses to chemicals in foods. When people with allergies consume a food that they are allergic to, their immune system falsely sees it as something dangerous and responds accordingly.
Our immune system is designed to protect us by killing things that could harm us. When there is nothing there to protect us from, an immune response can hurt instead of help us. This is the case with allergic reactions – your body is attacking something that isn’t actually there (think Don Quixote fencing with windmills).
For people with moderate allergies, this can mean itching, swelling, and hives but for people with severe allergies, their airways can close up and they can die. One of the scary things about allergies is that your immune system is always learning. Every time it is re-exposed to an allergen, it gets a little smarter, and the next reaction is stronger.
In allergenic foods, the foods contain what are known as endogenous toxins. This means that the toxins are made naturally and as part of the food. For this reason, you can’t just remove the allergens from foods – people have to be very careful not to eat foods that they are allergic to.
This makes food allergies especially difficult to regulate from a food safety perspective. The same food might be fine for one person and deadly for another. My high school stopped serving peanut butter in order to protect several students with severe peanut allergies and there was an uproar. It would be unreasonable to ban all common allergens on a large scale but it’s also important to keep those with food allergies safe.
For this reason, we have settled on an educational model. Foods with common allergens, such as peanuts, are clearly labeled and people with food allergies have to be careful to make sure they don’t consume anything that would be dangerous to them.
We don’t know exactly why some people have allergies and others don’t. Part of it is genetic, but part of it is also based on exposure. There is a lot of research going on about the cause of allergies, especially looking at infant exposure and the link between allergies and the bacteria in our gut. It will definitely be interesting to see where the research goes and hopefully, we will be able to prevent food allergies in the future.
So for those of you with food allergies, please be careful! It’s a pain to be paranoid about ingredients, especially when eating out with friends, but it’s so important. If your doctor has prescribed you an EpiPen, make sure you carry it with you and know how to use it. For those of you without allergies, I highly recommend taking a first aid class and learning how to use one anyway – it could save someone’s life.
The best food is safe food, so be careful and enjoy!