Fear of Food: Allergies Grow Deadlier, Fashionable

Back in the old days, say 20 years ago, planning a dinner party was a pleasure. You called up a few friends and told them what time to show up, bought some alcohol, and made some food.

But today, throwing a dinner party is a gastronomic minefield.

It begins with the required question that must be attached to every dinner invitation — "What don’t you eat?" — and ends with the cook tearing his or her hair out trying to make several different versions of the same meal because everyone says they have food allergies or preferences.

From our non-scientific survey of inviting people over, it also seems like more people claim a food allergy than ever before. Why has food become such an allergic trigger?

According to the Food Allergy Initiative, 11 million Americans have food allergies that send victims to the hospital in droves. Only about 150 people die each year from allergic reactions to food, but it seems odd that although we live in a time when we no longer forage through the forest and might unknowing eat toxic stuff, food allergies are on the rise. In fact, the allergies are to commonly ingested foods such as milk, eggs, wheat, soy, nuts and fish.

Going haywire

According to Hugh Samson of Mount Sinai Medical School and the Food Allergy Initiative, food allergies are a case of the immune system going haywire. Most of the food we eat is broken down in the digestive tract, but some bits of protein end up in the bloodstream where they are usually perceived by the immune system as harmless. In some people, the immune system doesn't react properly and instead produces an antibody that attacks these proteins, sending the body into allergic shock.

The rise in allergic reactions is real, Sampson feels, because culture has changed the way foods are introduced into the diet. For example, peanut allergies are highest in Western culture, and this may be because we wait so long to eat peanuts. In cultures where peanuts are on the menu early, no one seems to need a peanut-free classroom.

For example, the leading kid snack food in Israel is Bamba, a corn puff made with peanut butter, and there seem to be few Israeli kids with peanut allergies. In contrast, kids in Hebrew school in England, where there is no Bamba, often have peanut allergies.

Culture also plays a role in food preparation that might be a set-up for allergic reactions. Sampson points out that Africans boil their peanuts while American eat them dry-roasted. Dry roasting, it appears, make the peanuts into little allergy bombs just waiting to get into our bloodstreams and cause havoc.

Allergies are fashionable

It's also a cultural phenomenon that so many people claim food allergies without being tested, which means that certain food might cause intestinal distress (or the person imagines the distress). But that's not an allergic reaction.

It’s also become fashionable in Western culture to claim an allergy to dairy or wheat as a cure-all for stress, upset, or an off day, but that also doesn't make those foods a medical problem.

Food fear is our own invention, and yet one that we have to take seriously if a dinner guest can really end up dead. At my house, we cater to those with specific allergies, but we no longer attend to the preferences. Instead, we explain what's for dinner and if a guest doesn’t like it, tell them to bring their own food.

So far, no one has died at the table, but some guests, our picky eaters, have surely gone home hungry.

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).

Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves". She is a contributor to Live Science.