The Scientific and Cultural Story of Food Allergy: An Ongoing Drama

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The once questionable ailment called food allergy is now a recognized medical condition that has altered the way our food is produced, prepared, and consumed.

How this amazing shift occurred is the subject of a book called Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy, written by Matthew Smith.

Not everyone who lives with a food allergy by day will want to curl up with an allergy history book at night. However, those interested in why food allergy has always been controversial, and why explanations for it are elusive, may enjoy this historical drama.

Early History

The book reveals how many of today’s food allergy debates echo the allergy controversies of previous centuries, when physicians struggled to explain the bizarre symptoms some people developed after consuming certain foods.

Eventually, by the early 1900s, allergy developed into a unique field of medical study, and competing theories about food allergy began to surface, as did a new breed of treatment specialist—the food allergist.

Food allergists began diagnosing, treating, and defining food allergies more broadly than more orthodox allergists who focused their skills on non-food allergies such as hay fever and pet dander. A rift that grew between the broad and orthodox approach to food allergy still exists.

Allergy After WWII

Post WWII, the topic of food allergy became even more controversial. That is when several food allergists began speculating that food allergy resulted from man’s strained relationship with the environment, and the toxins and additives finding their way into our food supply.

This perspective clashed with the more orthodox allergy community who increasingly looked to the food, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries for financial support. Psychosomatic explanations for food allergy were also being bandied about by this time.

The discovery of IgE (immunoglobulin E) in 1966 gave orthodox specialists an immunological marker for allergic reactions. It signified to many of them that much of what food allergists deemed an allergy was actually a psychosomatic reaction, or an intolerance. Subsequently, the allergy debate subsided.

Enter the Peanut

What brought food allergy back into the media limelight was the increase of anaphylactic food allergy in the early 1990s. Particularly, it was peanut allergy that turned anaphylaxis into a public-health issue.

Today, most allergists concentrate on biomedical treatments, such as desensitization therapy, to address this growing allergy concern. However, the possibility that food allergy sufferers might be demonstrating the harmful effects of food, drug, and environmental contaminants still exists.

To conclude Another Person’s Poison, author Matthew Smith calls for food allergists and orthodox allergists to reconcile their differences and ”examine food allergy afresh in a more pluralistic, open-minded, and holistic fashion.”

While anyone with an interest in food allergy may appreciate the material in this eye-opening book, it might prove especially helpful to those doing advocacy or fund-raising work for food allergy awareness, safety, or research.

Source: Smith, Matthew, Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy, Columbia University Press, 2015. Photo credit: Florin Gorgan

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