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.
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.