A Quest to Understanding the History of Food Allergies

When I was thinking of an allergy blog topic to write about for the month of June, my first idea of course was related to food. I was thinking about how food options for people with allergies has changed drastically in the past two decades. I too frequently tell the story of growing up in my small farming community and my parents ordering me allergen-safe food all the way from Toronto— now my local hometown grocery store has it’s own gluten-free section. The overall change in allergy-friendly food options is of course reactive to how the prevalence of food allergies, as well as awareness of food allergies, has increased over the years. Instead of questioning the change in allergy friendly options over the past two decades, I began to wonder about the history of food allergies in general and how they have developed alongside modern medicine.

Happy New Year 2016. Jigsaw puzzle timeline.

To look into this overarching question, like any good millennial I took to the internet.  I quickly found that learning about the history of food allergies wasn’t as easy of a search as searching common egg substitutes in baking. Despite the lack of volume of information, I did find some interesting reads that shed a bit of light on our early understanding of food allergies which I will highlight in this post.

Interestingly enough, the earliest documentation of the adverse effects of food on human’s health came from none other than Hippocrates.  He described adverse food effects in his writing On Ancient Medicine in 400 B.C.E (http://classics.mit.edu/Hippocrates/ancimed.20.20.html):
“For cheese does not prove equally injurious to all men, for there are some who can take it to satiety, without being hurt by it in the least, but, on the contrary, it is wonderful what strength it imparts to those it agrees with; but there are some who do not bear it well, their constitutions are different, they differ in this respect, that what in their body is incompatible with cheese, is roused and put in commotion by such a thing”

Even in 400 B.C.E Hippocrates could empathize with not being able to enjoy the popular dairy product!

One of the most enjoyable reads on the history of food allergies that I found came from a short paper titled A Brief History on Food Allergies, which is actually a small chapter featured in the Super Allergy Cookbook written by Lisa Lundy. In this writing, Lundy describes the earliest recognition of food allergies in modern medicine at the beginning of the 19th century.  At this time doctors were making observations and documenting the connection between food and problematic health issues in their patients. One of the earliest modern writings came from Dr. Francis Hare of Australia. In 1905, Dr. Hare published a 1,000-page book entitled The Food Factor in Disease and sought to explain the relation between food and multiple diseases including: migraines, asthma, gout, headaches, eczema, GI disturbances, hypertension, bronchitis. See any connections to symptoms that we see today from food?

As for coining the term “allergy,” A Brief History on Food Allergies also discusses this moment. Dr. Clemens von Pirquet is given credit as the first to suggest using the word allergy to describe an inappropriate reaction to food or other substances that was typically not considered harmful. Another notable character on the road to developing or understanding of food allergies is Dr. Arthur Coca who not only proved the relation of exposure to food allergens causing a change in a person’s pulse, but went on to found the Journal of Immunology in 1915. These are just a small highlight of some of the early work to building our understanding of modern food allergies.

I would definitely recommend reading Lisa Lundy’s paper: http://www.thesuperallergycookbook.com/PDF/FoodAllergypaper.pdf

What about the history of developing medical treatment for anaphylactic reactions triggered by food allergens? In this day and age, the epinephrine auto-injector is the well-known treatment and lifeline for anyone suffering from an anaphylactic reaction and works to restore plummeting blood pressure that can prove to be very quickly life-threatening.  It turns out that the invention of the epinephrine auto-injector was a spin off a Cold War invention of a hollow-needle that allowed troops to self-inject an antidote to nerve gas! In the 1970’s, inventor Stephen Kaplan saw that simple modifications would allow this to be used by civilians particularly for those suffering from an anaphylactic reaction.  A brief history of the EpiPen® can be read in the article written by Mary Ellen Bowden A Mighty Pen and is featured online in the Chemical Heritage Magazine: http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/media/magazine/articles/31-3-mighty-pen.aspx.

Developing our understanding of food allergies has led to not only placing a focus on treatment and management of allergies but studying the exponential increase in prevalence of allergies in today’s society. A great resource that looks deep into more modern research on this topic is the Nature of Things- With David Suzuki episode “The Allergy Fix”:  http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episodes/the-allergy-fix. In this episode, startling facts are addressed.  This includes the fact that children in today’s society are three times more likely to have food allergies compared to children twenty years ago. Different research hypotheses that have been proposed for this increase are also discussed in this episode including the Hygiene Hypothesis which suggests that societies have become too sanitary and therefore not exposing children to certain germs that can actually be protective to their immune system. An interesting historical research finding that highlights this point mentioned in the episode states that when the Berlin Wall came down those living in the industrial and more “polluted” East side of Germany had a significant lower number of allergies as opposed to those living in “cleaner” west Germany. The Allergy Fix is definitely an episode worth checking out that summarizes where we have gotten to with our modern understanding of food allergies.

Have any interesting facts or findings old or new about food allergies? Feel free to share below!

– Caitlyn P.

The Dangers of Complacency with a Food Allergy: The Black Bear Tale

This past spring, two friends and I went interior camping near Gravenhurst. We found a really cool map online of an unmaintained provincial park that is essentially a big playground waiting to be explored by camping geeks like us. We prepared for weeks, slowly purchasing new gear, mapping out potential routes, acquiring additional auto-injectors, and discussing all the great trails waiting for us. As the big day grew closer, we began planning out our menu. This is where things can get tricky. I am at-risk for anaphylaxis for peanuts and tree nuts and my other friend, let’s call him Ted, is at-risk for anaphylaxis for peanuts, tree nuts, raw fruits and vegetables, and salmon. Luckily some of our allergens cross-over so we went with some of our staple foods that were easy to carry: Noodles, rice, oatmeal, chips, etc. Before long, we had our menu completed, our food purchased, and our bags packed. We didn’t think twice about the food since we ate them all the time and felt confident that what we had was safe to eat.

Entering the park was quite the experience. The road in starts as pavement, then turns to gravel, then abruptly turns into pot-holed, uneven dirt for several kilometers. Once we parked our car and took off down a trail, we soon realized we had missed the trail we wanted and had to double back. Whenever we stopped moving, the black fly army would swarm us and leave itchy reminders that this was their land. Clearly, we were off to a great start… The actual trail we wanted started as hardly more than a half foot of compact grass but regardless, we were finally on the trail and making up ground.

DSCN1407The scenery was beautiful! The trails meandered up and down, left and right, and popped us out on some really nice ridges overlooking forest and marsh below. This park was like a dream come true for us! We couldn’t believe we hadn’t discovered it earlier.

Anyway, that night we found a great little campsite beside a lake and stayed there for the night. The next day, we made some oatmeal and Ted had a packet of noodles and off we went down the trail to continue our exploration.

DSCN1410Flash forward about an hour later. We had been hiking through a dense forest that took us over a little stream and up a steep ridge. At the top of this ridge, we took a break to take in the incredible view of a marsh below and drink some water. Andy, the second friend, points down to the marsh and says, “Whoa! Look! A bear!” Lo and behold, there was a massive black bear trudging along the marsh in a line away from us where we had been hiking not even twenty minutes prior! We marvelled at catching this sight and probably got a little too loud because the bear turned and looked up the ridge towards us.

Bear in the morning on the loop in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee.

We all paused, not knowing what to do next.

The bear seemed uninterested in climbing the steep ridge and continued to the other side of the marsh while we picked up our bags and continued to hike the ridge, still excited that we saw a bear!

About ten minutes later, Ted started to breathe heavily. He took out his puffer and took a couple puffs thinking it was just his asthma that sometimes flares up.

We continued our hike.

A few minutes later, Ted took a few more puffs which raised a few red flags in my head. We took another break near a split in the trail and he told us that his chest felt very heavy and his breathing felt oddly similar to one of his past anaphylactic reactions. Now all red flags were up!

We quickly looked at the map. Luckily there was a fork in the trail right beside us that led a kilometer straight back to our car. There was a river to the left and the marsh to the right. There was only one way to go.

Oh, I forgot to mention…the bear was last seen at the end of that trail. So now we had quite the scenario. Ted needed to get to the hospital and the only way to get there was down a trail blocked by a bear! …Are you kidding me?!

There was really no choice. We took out some pots, I had my hatchet, and we made as much noise as possible while we walked down the trail. The bush was so thick that we had no idea where the bear might be hiding so we kept our eyes peeled and kept moving.

No sign of the bear.

The car was now in sight and Ted’s breathing had gotten worse, so he took his auto-injector.

We loaded the car as fast as we could and I sped down the pot-hole road. I had only one thing on my mind: Drive Fast! The hospital was 45 minutes away and I wasn’t going to be the reason Ted didn’t make it there.

After he took the auto-injector, Ted’s symptoms didn’t get better but they weren’t worse either which was a good sign. After 35 minutes of winding roads, we made it to the hospital and everything turned out great. Ted was fine and we ended up going to a friend’s cottage nearby instead of braving the trails again.

We looked back at our food and meticulously read every ingredient twice. It turns out that the noodles that Ted insisted he ate daily may contain peanuts, tree nuts, AND fish. A triple threat for Ted!

The moral of the story is that it is easy to become complacent with food allergies. Reading the label can become so routine that we just trust that the ingredients of our favourite brands won’t change. Ted and I learned a very scary lesson that food ingredients should always be read multiple times no matter how often you buy a certain brand. Companies can change ingredients at any time. All it takes is you eating one package of “may contain” out of a thousand other times to trigger an anaphylactic reaction. It is never worth the risk. Do yourself a favour and always stay sharp with your food allergy. Be alert and stay safe.

– Dylan B.

Food Allergies at the Ball Game

A summer baseball game is a huge event in my city (Go Blue Jays!). My friends and I live for the humid weekend games, the ice-cold beers, the popcorn, and just the pure excitement of the game. Another huge tradition at baseball games, though, is chomping down on some peanuts. The average person will definitely indulge on this traditional baseball snack, but for individuals with a peanut allergy, the baseball field can suddenly become a very scary place.

I’m severely allergic to peanuts, and I’ve somehow never experienced people around me eating peanuts during a baseball game until the most recent game I went to. My friends and I had amazing seats. We had just sat down with our beers and popcorn and were waiting for the game to start. When I did a quick turn to see the area around us, I noticed a family a few rows behind us just going to town on a bag of peanuts. They were chomping down on those peanuts like they have never tasted them before, and were throwing the shells EVERYWHERE. I was super thankful I wasn’t closer to them, but I was also a little anxious because they really weren’t that far away from me.

Toronto, Canada - July 27, 2010: An aerial view of the Rogers Center in Toronto, Canada. The stadium houses the Toronto Blue Jays and was opened in 1989.

I don’t think a food allergy should stop you from attending a baseball game. You have every right to be there as anyone else! However, there are definitely a few ways that you can decrease your chances of anything happening:

  • When buying your tickets, inquire about “nut-free” sections at the stadium. In Toronto, they sometimes provide nut-free zones where no peanut or tree nuts are allowed.
  • If you don’t want to sit in the “nut-free” section of the game because you have amazing tickets that you want to take advantage of, don’t fret. Ensure you have your EpiPens® on you and upon sitting, take a quick scan of your surrounding areas to see if anyone is eating your allergen. If they are, engage them in friendly conversation and let them know what’s going on. People can be very accommodating; so don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.
  • Wash your hands if you plan to eat anything and always read the ingredients!

Going to a baseball game doesn’t have to be scary. There are easy ways to make the situation safer for you. Now go buy some tickets and root for the home team with your friends/family!

– Giulia C.

When a Boy with a Food Allergy Walked into my Life: Girlfriend Edition

Chocolate covered almonds, peanut butter sandwiches, and M & M’s are a few of my favourite things to eat! For me, going a day without peanuts, tree nuts, or almonds was as rare as a black swan. I have been very lucky in my life to have no food allergies. On top of that, my family and my closest friends are also allergy-free. Needless to say, you can imagine how much my life flipped the moment I found out my major crush (who is now my boyfriend) informed me of his life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. This was also a relief for me, as I understood why we didn’t share a kiss after our first date.

The first time we kissed, and several times after, I noticed a trend. The question “have you consumed any nuts today?” along with an interrogation of my diet, was something I quickly got accustomed to. I’ve never been questioned before kissing someone, so that was a totally new experience for me. Talk about feeling pressured! This wasn’t a typical question that had a range of answers, it was either yes or no. I had to be 100% sure or else my boyfriend’s life was at stake. I became very well acquainted with ingredient labels on all products. This helped me to feel confident to ensure I was nut-free and kissable on days when I was visiting my boyfriend.

Woman trying to kiss a man and he is rejecting her outdoor in a park
Before kissing someone, ensure they have not eaten your allergen!

I began making a list of personal items that may contain peanuts and tree nuts, or could have been contaminated at some point (with the amount of peanuts and tree nuts in my life, you can imagine how long this list was). If there’s one thing my friends know about me, it’s that I love my chap stick. In all honesty, I use it hourly! So I chose to assume all previously used one were contaminated and bought new ones. I then marked the new ones with permanent marker to indicate that they were nut-free and safe from cross-contamination. As I used my old personal items that potentially came into contact with nuts, I eventually replaced them with nut-free products that would be safe around my boyfriend. After all, if things go well with this guy, my future will be surrounded by a nut-free environment so I might as well get used to that sooner rather than later.

I currently live at home and figured it would be important for my parents to be informed of my boyfriend’s food allergies. To help my parents have a better understanding, I named a couple of examples of tree nuts such as hazelnuts, walnuts, and almonds. It was a good thing I did, as my dad later questioned me about almonds. This gave me an opportunity to educate my parents further and since I had their attention, I brought up the topic of cross-contamination, such as clean nut-free counter tops when my boyfriend is visiting. My parents were put to the test over the holidays when they invited him over for Christmas dinner.

I made sure I went over the ingredients with my parents to certify everything was nut-free and I reminded my parents to stay away from items such as previously opened butters that could have been contaminated. I am happy to say that the dinner was delicious, and my boyfriend was able to enjoy an allergen-free turkey dinner.

Couple shopping in a supermarket

I thought the holidays was a big test, but that was nothing compared to the vegan pot luck get together my friends and I choose to organize. Vegan dinners tend to contain a lot of tree nuts due to their high protein content. As mentioned earlier, none of my close friends have any food allergies. During the planning phase, my friends and I went over who was making what dish. To tone down the anxiety my boyfriend may feel that night, I picked a main dish so the both of us could be confident knowing there is at least one thing we could eat, after all, kisses were on the line and going an entire day with my boyfriend and not being allowed to kiss him, seemed torturous! Next, I became the nut police, or at least that’s what my friends called me. I made sure each person was aware of the extent of my boyfriend’s allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. A couple days before the big day, I started giving some tips on reading labels, and foods/areas to avoid (such as pre-made salads) at the grocery store. I reminded my friends to pay close attention to their ingredients, and if they made a mistake, and accidentally contaminated their meal with nuts, to be aware of that so that I could inform my boyfriend of which foods to avoid. Not only was my boyfriend able to feel relaxed during our get together, but my friends also chose to support the new change in my life, and learned more about accommodating food allergies.

I had no idea the impact his food allergy would have on my life, but I found the transition to be much easier, especially when kisses are up for grabs.

– Cindy B

Travelling to Italy with Food Allergies

Italy is a beautiful country to visit year-round. The sights, sounds, smells, and flavours of the country underpin Italy’s rich history and classical traditions. Having an Italian background, I have frequented the country as a tourist a number of times, both before and after I was diagnosed with a severe food allergy to tree nuts in 2004. In this post, I will list-out some tips (drawn from my past experiences) that you can use when planning your next trip to Italy. By no means is this list definitive – its intended use is more as a quick reference during the initial planning stages of your trip.

Things to do before you go

  1. Brace yourself for the language barrier

When travelling to any foreign country where you are not fluent in the native tongue, try to seek-out ways to overcome some of the language-barrier obstacles that you may encounter. Purchase an Italian-English dictionary (assuming you are travelling to Italy) and make a short list of key words and phrases that may be helpful to you. I suggest writing-out the Italian translation for all of your allergens. Here is a translated list of a few common allergens:

  • Peanuts = Arachide
  • Nut = Noce
  • Milk = Latte
  • Egg = Uovo
  • Wheat = Grano

*Note the pronunciation and spelling of these words may vary depending on the region of Italy that you are travelling to. Most people speak standard Italian, but there are a number of dialects in the language that vary with the geography of the country.

Vintage scene with Vespa on old street.

  1. Find a hotel equipped with an in-room kitchen that is located near a grocery store

Most hotels in Italy, outside of the major cities, are usually smaller, more intimate inns that are family-owned. When booking your accommodations, try looking for rooms with kitchen facilities or hotels that will allow you to use their kitchen temporarily to prepare your own meals. As intoxicating as fresh Italian food can be, you need to take precautions and cook your own meals. The severity of food allergies are not as well understood in Italy as they are in the United States or Canada. This, coupled with the language barrier, may make it difficult to eat-out safely. To play it safe, find accommodations near a grocery store and cook your own food.

  1. Bring-along some cooking equipment (just in case)

Although there are plenty of hotels that have in-room kitchens, some are reluctant to lend out cooking-equipment. This is more of a rare case, but I have encountered it a couple of times while travelling in Europe. To avoid this unpleasant surprise, be sure to ask about this when booking your room/accommodations. Additionally, I would recommend packing a small, lightweight grill that you can place on a stove-top, in your carry-on luggage.

Throughout the years, I have found these tips to be useful when planning any of my trips to Italy (and Europe, in general). Again, Italy is a beautiful country with a lot to explore. Don’t let food allergies ruin the experience! Plan appropriately and reap the rewards!

– Saverio M.

Travelling Using Hostels

In 2008, I travelled across New Zealand for three months and stayed in over 10 hostels. It was a dream scenario to take a leave from work and travel to a beautiful country with only a bag and a camera. But the reality was that I knew it was going to take some planning to make sure I stayed safe.

I chose hostels because of their affordability.

But as a person with multiple food allergies (peanut and fish) I was still worried about eating in a shared kitchen.

How did I do it? I travelled with my own little portable kitchen. With having backpack staples I would just have to pick up fresh veggies, fruit, and bread in a new location to have nutritious and safe meals.

I would first set off to find a grocery store and grab items that were simple staples (seen below) that were easy to travel with and made one bowl meals. Non-refrigerated condiments were key to making food taste delicious. Grains like couscous cook quickly and only need boiling water and boost up any salad.

I would eat during off-peak hours. It allowed me to have really clean surfaces and avoid other people’s cooking odours.

London, United Kingdom - March 17, 2015: A man at the entrance of the St Pauls Youth Hostel in London, England. The Youth Hostel Association provides accommodation in 200 locations in England and Wales

Tips for Travelling to a Hostel

  • Eat during non-peak hours. No one will be in the kitchen and you can sanitize an area and sink without worry of people touching or cooking something that you may react to.
  • Bag your groceries in a disposable plastic bag for the fridge. When leaving, I would transfer it to my clean cloth bag insuring that nothing from the fridge contaminated my items
  • Pack your own cutting board, paring knife, soap, and cutlery
  • Re-wash any dishwater you may use in the hostel before beginning to cook
  • Prepare simple meals that require little to no time to cook

Backpack Staples

  • Instant oatmeal
  • Brown sugar
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Couscous
  • Mustard
  • Olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Crackers

It was an affordable and positive way to travel. I met a lot of people who shared many common interests with me. Staying food safe was a big part of me feeling comfortable travelling by myself in a new country.

– Catherine B.

Hidden Allergens in Beauty Products

To the average person who does not have allergies, many believe that reading labels does not go beyond those on foods. Many people are surprised to find that when I shop for new make-up or beauty products, I will spend excessive amounts of time in the shopping aisle, struggling to read the fine print of lengthy ingredient labels.

When shopping for new beauty products, it is really important to know exactly what you need to avoid and that you take the time to read labels. The labels on beauty products are often very long and I am always tempted to skim through them. However, too often I find an ingredient I am allergic to.

set of  decorative cosmetic powder, concealer, eye shadow brush, blush, foundation

Personally, I try to stick to the same products that I know are safe, but being a twenty-year-old girl, I often want to try new brands of products. I have tree nut allergies, as well as an allergy to formaldehyde that results in dermatitis. Before finding out I had this allergy, I thought formaldehyde was simply used in laboratories for preservation, but little did I know formaldehyde-releasing chemicals could be found in many low-budget beauty products! To complicate things further, after being diagnosed with this allergy, my dermatologist provided me with a list of 6 chemical names that are actually formaldehyde, since you will never find formaldehyde listed in an ingredients list.

Formaldehyde is not the only allergen that has multiple names. Even with tree nut allergies, there are many different types of nuts and oils that can cause a reaction. Your best bet is to do some research about your allergens so you have a better idea of what ingredients to watch for. Make sure you check the label every time you buy a product, even if you always buy the same brand, because ingredients can change without warning. It is much easier to read the label than to deal with the consequences of a reaction.

Another thing to keep in mind is that just because a product claims that it is hypoallergenic, does not necessarily mean it will be safe for you. The meaning behind a hypoallergenic product is that it has a low chance of causing a reaction. Be sure to check labels regardless!

– Sara S.

By Food Allergy Canada

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