By Robin Gallaher Branch | Photography courtesy of NDNR.com and nonnabox.com
Food allergies and food intolerances are becoming more common, even among adults who develop symptoms later in life.
A food allergy can be sudden, scary, and life-threatening. Dr. Joseph Fahhoum, an allergist-immunologist at Allergy & Asthma Specialists of Memphis, tells a story about an unexpected patient, a hospital emergency room referral.
Fahhoum listened as a young man recalled enjoying a filet mignon the night before. After arriving home, the man became quite ill, and his girlfriend took him to an emergency room. He received an epinephrine injection to combat his reaction. Epinephrine is used to treat life-threatening allergic reactions caused by insect bites or stings, foods, medications or other causes.
Fahhoum says the young man, who might have died without this quick action, must avoid red meat and carry an epinephrine autoinjector. Will he outgrow this sudden food allergy? “Perhaps with time,” Fahhoum responds.
Allergies – for children and adults – are becoming more common. “They’re on the rise,” Fahhoum says. Two factors, according to statistical research, include differences between urban and rural environments and the trend among parents to delay exposing their children to various foods. Fahhoum suggests that trend needs a re-evaluation.
“The earlier we introduce new foods to children, the less likely they are to have food allergies,” Fahhoum says.
He also believes people who live in rural areas or on farms have fewer allergies because of exposure to more things in the air. “An urban environment is more sterile,” Fahhoum explains. “Good advice is to send your kids to camp.”
Fahhoum separates what the public calls allergies into three broad categories:
Celiac disease is a gluten sensitivity and is not an allergy. Gastro-intestinal symptoms include bloating, diarrhea, and nausea. Treatment is 100 percent avoidance of foods containing gluten.
A food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance, occurs when a person cannot digest a certain food. Lactose-free products are available as are other kinds of food intolerance products.
Allergies are more serious. Symptoms can be hives, rash, and shortness of breath. Fahhoum stresses the need for a proper diagnosis along with considering the patient’s personal history.
To illustrate how serious food allergies can be, Fahhoum gives an example of a young patient who has a peanut allergy. While riding his bicycle near his home, the boy stopped to chat with neighbors, who gave him a popular chocolate-covered confection with peanuts. The child had never seen that candy and eagerly ate it.
“The result was one of the most intense reactions I’ve ever seen,” Fahhoum says. “I had to give him several epinephrine injections.”
Will he outgrow this allergy? “Very likely, not,” Fahhoum says.
CATERED AFFAIRS & FOOD ALLERGIES
Steven Leake, culinary program coordinator at Southwest Tennessee Community College, frequently serves as a chef for galas and other exclusive events.
Leake advises people who know they have a food allergy and are going to a catered banquet to talk to its organizers in advance. Consumers, especially those with allergies, need to read menus and labels carefully and ask questions. Leake tells of a guest’s near-death experience at a black-tie event for 650 people. Finely-ground hazel nuts flavored the dessert’s crust. After several bites, the man experienced severe symptoms.
“His throat started swelling and he couldn’t breathe,” Leake says. “An epinephrine injection saved his life.”
Luckily, the man fully recovered. For the group’s gala the following year, Leake says nuts were eliminated altogether.
Leake knows about food intolerances first hand. When his extended family gathers at his home, he cheerfully cooks everybody’s favorites but his niece and her children cannot have milk or eggs. Leake makes their birthday cakes with egg substitutes and everyone still has a good time.
Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease can also restrict lives for those who suffer. Deborah Blanchard, a Memphis marketing and communications specialist, was diagnosed with celiac disease 13 years ago.
“I can’t go to Memphis breweries because of the grain in the air; make a cake from scratch for my grandchildren; or go to a pizza place that’s throwing pizza dough,” says Blanchard. Years of gastro-intestinal troubles preceded her diagnosis.
Gluten-free since 2006, Deborah explains she went “cold turkey” from breads; switched to rice, veggies, and fruits; started reading labels and immediately changed her diet. “Within two weeks, I felt 200 percent better,” she says.
Blanchard is also happy to report that gluten-free pizzas are readily available. “There were none in 2006,” she says with a smile.