Cultivars and food sensitivity

We’re living in an era in which judging what other people eat is extremely popular, as apparently minding our own plates is something we’re incapable of. We’re all familiar with people who troll other people because they’re too fat to eat X, or because they should try Y since it’s healthier, or they should eat organic, or grass fed, or vegan, or any number of other things. One trend, however, has been getting extremely common: Making fun of allergies and food sensitivities.

Here’s the thing. Food allergies can kill. Some people can develop severe anaphylaxis with exposure to even trace amounts of an allergen, which is why they’re concerned about cross-contamination. Others have more mild reactions, but they’re aware that it’s very easy for a mild allergy to get worse, because repeat exposures can trigger more severe responses. Food allergies are not funny. It doesn’t matter if you saw someone else who ‘claims’ to be allergic eat a given food and tolerate it reasonably well: What matters is that if someone says she’s allergic, you should disclose allergens in food, and that includes ‘just a little.’

Food sensitivities can be extremely unpleasant, and in some cases, they can kill or cause long term chronic health problems. For example, people with gluten intolerance might not have allergic reactions, but their intestinal tracts do develop inflammation as a result of exposure to gluten. In the short term, that might mean an unpleasant night (or three) in the bathroom. In the long term, it can cause problems with nutrient absorption, it can lead to fatigue, and it can contribute to the development of increased stress. Worse yet, chronic inflammation is associated with cancer; every time cells divide, the risk of cancer increases. In other words, they’re serious.

Yet, people get all up in arms about how people must be ‘making up’ or exaggerating food sensitivities and allergies, an issue that’s becoming more acute as the number of people identifying themselves as allergic or sensitive to given foods keeps increasing. This is irritating on its face as we return to the issue of minding plates and relevance: How does the fact that someone’s gluten-free affect my life in any way, shape, or form? We can pass each other in the grocery store with our respective baskets and that person probably won’t hit the bread aisle, but why should I care?

Certain challenges can present themselves when eating out or cooking for people with allergens and food sensitivities, but frankly, we all work (or should be working) to accommodate our friends in large and small way every day. Accounting for concerns around food is just another accommodation. If you’re willing to accept a friend who is chronically late to everything, what’s the difference between that and a friend who can’t eat a given ingredient? If you’re expressing annoyance with someone over one and not the other, that’s a problem — and I have to question the level of your friendship with someone.

We all do things or have traits that pose occasional challenges to the people around us. Our friends deal with it. People who are not our friends don’t, or make a pointed fuss out of all the effort involved. I don’t whine when I go out with vegetarian friends and they express a preference for a restaurant that has a variety of vegetarian options. I like them. They’re my friends. It’s not going to kill me to eat at a restaurant I might not have chosen on my own. (P.S. I like vegetarian food.)

Yet, this kind of behavior is growing quite acceptable when it comes to trashing people with food allergies and sensitivities. It’s rude and uncalled for, and it’s actively unkind. Someone who mocks people or makes light of potentially serious medical conditions is not a friend. That person is just a jerk. Someone who makes a point of sneaking potentially dangerous ingredients into food, or of being pushy about ‘well, are you really that sensitive?’ is a jerk. These people should be ashamed of themselves.

More to the point, though, it is worth talking about why the number of people with food sensitivities appears to be increasing. The argument from the jerks is that people are special snowflakes determined to make the world difficult for everyone else (because it’s so fun to be mocked and belittled all the time). But there’s something deeper going on here. Some researchers argue that overcautious protection from allergens in childhood may, ironically, be the cause — i.e. we live in a world that’s too clean, and a world where parents are advised to refrain from feeding their children like honey and peanut butter under a certain age, thereby depriving them of the exposure to potential allergens so their immune systems can calibrate themselves.

This may well be part of the phenomenon — the evidence is very compelling. However, I’d be interested in another aspect of this eternal subject of vicious debate. The food we are growing is different. It’s changed, in fact, quite radically over the last twenty years alone. I’m not talking about the dreaded war over GMOs (though certainly more lab-modified crops are being used — we’ve been genetically modifying crops for millennia with selective breeding), but rather the specific breeding for given traits we’re utilising. Industrial agriculture is growing more sophisticated, at the cost of the crops we eat, with crops tailored to industrial harvesting, production, transit, and shelf life. While this is purely hypothetical and I’m love to see actual research on it, I’m curious to know if what we’re doing to our crops is a contributing factor in the growing incidence of allergies and food sensitivities — are we breeding our own destruction?

Image: Wheat, Keith Ewing, Flickr