Tolerating Food Intolerances

"No thanks, it makes me sick." "Let’s see, if I leave the milk out of these rolls Sheila can eat them." "Will Dad eat birthday cake tonight (and go off his wheat-free diet) because it’s a special occasion?"

In many homes, food allergies have added an extra twist to decisions that go on in the kitchen. While the official number of people with serious allergies is low—2 percent of adults and 8 percent of children—considerably more people have what is known as a "food intolerance." In fact, as many as 25 to 28 percent of us have reactions to certain foods. Does cantaloupe give your stomach a workout? Does chocolate give you a migraine headache? Do strawberries give you a skin rash? Do you avoid shellfish? Then you already know what I’m talking about.

Parents often have to educate themselves quickly on the intricacies of the body’s immune system when a child develops a milk or a peanut allergy. (A certain protein found in peanuts has caused more food allergy deaths, usually by anaphylactic shock, than any other type of allergy, because peanuts often are hidden in baked goods, candy, ethnic food, i.e. as when a Chinese restaurant seals its egg rolls with peanut butter.)

Food allergy symptoms can take the form of hives, headaches, gastrointestinal distress (cramps, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting), asthma, worsening of arthritis or eczema, or oral manifestations where the lips tingle, itch, and swell, or your throat tightens.

Reactions such as these can be caused by a genuine triggering of the immune system by the enemy substance, or it may be merely an inability to metabolize or break down certain foods because of a sensitivity to a naturally occurring chemical contained in that food, i.e. lactose in milk. (It has been estimated that 80 percent of African Americans are lactose intolerant, as are many people of Mediterranean or Latin American origin.)

Often it is a protein in a food, like the peanut protein, that sets off an allergic reaction. Casein in milk and albumin in eggs are other examples. Because these proteins often are isolated and added to other processed foods, you have to learn their names and be diligent about reading labels.

Dissecting food labels has to become second nature for people with food allergies. My father, for instance, has learned that "modified food starch" often means wheat, which he is allergic to. Modified food starch can be found in everything from canned soup to ice cream. My sister had a corn allergy for a while (like many people with allergies, she outgrew it eventually) and detective work related to her allergy turned up corn products in all sorts of places, including the glue on the back of lickable postage stamps.

Food allergies often come in clusters. If your system reacts to onions, you may also have to avoid other members of the lily family: garlic, asparagus, leeks. You may be sensitive to the gourd family, which includes cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash. The nightshade family can cause grief, and its members include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, potatoes. Citrus, mustards, and cereals are other food families that sometimes cause food allergies.

Exposure is a key factor in the development of an allergy. For instance, American children have a higher rate of milk allergies than Japanese children, while Japanese children more often have soy allergies. This correlates with the frequency of milk and soy found in each culture respectively. Some dieticians believe that if you overdo one type of food—wheat bread, or dairy products—you are asking for trouble with allergies.

ALL THIS MAKES life very interesting for the family cook. The complex web of cause and effect can be very frustrating for both the person with allergies and the people around him or her, especially when the rules seem to shift about. For example, someone who gets sick after eating chicken on a stressful work night often can eat chicken on vacation and not get sick at all. This leaves the person looking like a hypochondriac, but stress is certainly a contributing factor when it comes to allergies.

Frequency, also, can be adjusted. Perhaps someone allergic to dairy products can get away with eating a serving of ice cream or cheese if it has been several weeks since the last ingestion of a dairy product. (If you are seen with that ice cream cone, however, you probably will be accused of "cheating" by people around you who know you have a dairy allergy.)

Patience, experimentation, curiosity as to what is contained in the foods we eat, and a greater reliance on whole, unprocessed foods will make culinary life more enjoyable to those with food allergies. They are not bad traits for the rest of us to cultivate, either.

For a little adventure, the next time you are at a bulk foods section or whole foods store, purchase a few pounds of rice flour (brown or white). Then find a recipe for shortbread, oatmeal cookies, or "Snickerdoodles," and substitute rice flour for the wheat flour. Cut the flour amount down just slightly. The resulting cookies will be different than you are used to, but absolutely delicious—melting in your mouth with each bite. Sometimes allergies can be a plus.

CAREY BURKETT is an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.

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