Whatever Wednesday: Food, Allergies, and Knowledge, a series of thoughts

Mt. Washington's Cog Railway
Mt. Washington’s Cog Railway

This is part one of a series I’ve been discussing with Denise talking about some of the many things we’ve learned via the “fun” of food allergy diagnosis and lifestyle. Some of what we’ve learned is about food and food production. Some is about psychology, some about culture, and there are probably some life lessons in there somewhere. These posts will come up irregularly, but given that a huge part of the challenge of living with food restrictions is not about actual recipes, we thought it was an important part of our blog mission to talk about “life, the universe, and everything” a bit, too.

One of the weird things about food allergy and food intolerance is that you all of a sudden become a student of our modern food system. It starts with reading labels, but it doesn’t end there. Read a label. Go on, pick up something close to you and read it. Wait, no, never mind, I’m mostly preaching to the choir here. You already know most of this.

On your average* labeled food in the US, your average* non-chemist citizen will be able to identify, if she’s lucky, maybe half* of the ingredients as actual foods. The information on fat content and calories is pretty clear, but actual ingredients are less so.

[*Editorial note: all references to anything like numbers are, for clarity’s sake, completely made up.]

There are entire labs devoted to figuring out how to create tastes and smells and textures that may or may not be based in nature. And these labs aren’t kitchens. To be honest, I think it’s kind of cool that we have this kind of science — that we can make something like a Twinkie exist and be shelf-stable for, well, let’s just assume that it would survive an eternity with all the “freshness” it was given upon creation. I like the idea that sometime, in our post-apocalyptic future, some bedraggled but strong survivor may discover a secret cache of a 7-11, with enough calories to power her through the next month or two, trying to preserve some vestige of the human race.

The point of bothering to share that (admittedly grim) future vision is to primarily give you my bias in this matter. I think science is cool. I think science in food is kind of cool, though I can’t speak to the health impacts of it. And therein lies one of my problems — for the most part, none of these scientists are speaking to, or even studying, the health impacts of their culinary science experiments. Science for the sake of science is one thing. Science for the sake of corporate profit with an unsure safety record, or science that uses the populace as a large pool of guinea pigs isn’t something that makes me sleep soundly at night.

In the US, regulation of food descriptors is next to meaningless. “Natural” doesn’t actually mean anything, and let’s be clear — human beings are “natural” so if we create it, it is also “natural.” And that’s as much as that word means in marketing. Also, as we the food allergic know, most of us are allergic to “natural” things. My first allergic food reaction (or the first one I clocked as such at the time) was to a hazelnut, right off the tree, at a hazelnut farm. You really can’t get much more natural than that.

Organic”** and “gluten-free” are now defined terms by the USDA and the FDA, respectively. Not much else is.

[**USDA’s page on the National Organic Program is currently down due to the Federal shutdown. So you get wikipedia.]

As I’ve read more and more food labels, and as I’ve looked up all the ingredients I didn’t know, I’ve become more conservative about what I choose to eat. I don’t judge anyone else for making a different choice. We all need to be in charge of our own health — and, indeed, in figuring out what that is. These days, when comparing products, I will generally gravitate towards the product with the fewest number of ingredients — the fewer things I have to worry about, the less stress in my life. And the less I need to read. Given that companies make no efforts to let you know when they’ve changed a recipe, I have to remember that I need to read all labels, even for products I’ve been safely buying for the last few years. It gets tiresome, and so I find it easiest to mostly buy products without labels when I can. Ah, broccoli.

The other thing that I find to be a truth of the food allergy world is that we are pretty constantly learning from one another. With Denise’s corn allergy, I’ve learned so much about processing and how our foods can be contaminated with things that don’t need to be listed because they are part of “processing.” Or ingredients that can be derived from a variety of different source materials, but don’t need to be labeled (lecithin can be a derivative of egg, soy, or sunflower, though the latter two are usually labeled as such). With recalls, I’ve learned how often it is that things go wrong in the manufacturing process and how easy it is to be exposed to something you take all the care in the world to avoid.

This part of the food allergy life is the scary part, and at times, I know fear is a huge driving factor in decisions I make about travel, eating out, and socializing around food. Working through this is not a one-time thing but an ongoing process, and that’s part of why we’ll be writing some of these non-recipe posts. We’re hoping to talk about the role food plays in our lives, how that changes with food allergies, how that can affect families when your food traditions have to shift to accommodate one person’s health (or what happens when the tradition is given precedence over the person), being your own advocate (or not), being the “weird” one, the sheer time factor of needing to make your own stuff, the planning that goes into feeding yourself, and anything else that happens to come up as we write about the other things.

What about you? What would you like to see discussed? What has having food allergies — or being around someone who does — taught you? What do you still need to learn? We’re open to suggestions.

    11 comments

      1. I love it when people tell me that I can’t be allergic to something because it’s all-natural, or that I should just buy organic. Um, corn can be organic and all-natural, and I’m pretty sure I’m still allergic to it.

    1. Some discussions I’ve had recently with folks with no food allergy issues have been interesting, to say the least. An open mind makes all the difference in the discussions on both ends.
      I’ve heard two statements that just flabbergasted me. One, “Just a little bit won’t hurt you” and two, “kids that could die from food allergies just shouldn’t go to school.” Umm, wow

    2. It seems like the only time a company will publicly acknowledge changing a recipe is when they’ve had backlash from consumers about a particular ingredient or the taste/texture as a whole. (Have you seen the “now even better tasting” kind of labels?) Of course, even then, they often don’t get specific about what they changed. I remember when Rice Krispies came out with a GF version, some consumers (judging by Amazon reviews) were very confused about why brown rice had been used, given that white rice is also of course GF. Presumably it had something to do with the recipe formulation or else the company just wanted to get the full effect of the gluten-free health halo by making the cereal “whole grain,” but to this day I don’t know. It’s quite mysterious why food companies do what they do!

      I think I was already a bit food obsessed even before learning I had to go GF, and I’ve stayed/gotten more interested, so I’m looking forward to reading your posts about feeding oneself with food allergies. The time factor of cooking everything is a big nuisance. How do you get around it?

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