That’s how much of a role food allergies are playing in our lives.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children impacted by food allergies increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007, when the total hit 3 million U.S. kids. More than 12 million Americans suffer from food allergies, meaning adults aren’t faring any better. That’s one in 25 Americans, or 4 percent of the entire U.S. population.
All this adds up to one huge business opportunity for the food industry, which many credit with helping to create this cash crop to begin with by contorting the structure of our favorite staples to formulate what nutritionist Caroline Nation calls “frankenfoods” that can withstand extreme temperature changes and bacterial attacks to last long enough to make it to your dinner table.
And, for many of us, it arrives with a thud in our digestive tracks, wreaking daily inflammational havoc on our respiratory and intestinal systems.
This laboratory “genetic modification” of certain foods, especially of the robust gluten molecule, has been going on since the end of World War II, says Nation, a London-trained and New York-based nutrition specialist. Combined with the introduction of heavy metals like mercury and lead, and toxic chemicals in plastics like BPA, into a whole host of U.S. consumer products, she says a “perfect storm” has emerged to land allergies on the list of America’s growing public health concerns.
In typical fashion for an industry with a heavy and effective lobby in Washington, food manufacturers have not been made to pay for, or even modify, the laboratory changes believed to have contributed to America’s growing struggle with food allergies. Instead, they’ve turned it into another money-maker.
Remember when food companies responded to America’s obsession with weight loss by flooding the market with “fat-free,” “low-fat,” “low-carb” and “low-calorie” foods, long after pumping them with unhealthy fillers and preservatives that helped make us fat? Well, now they’re doing the same with America’s growing struggle with allergies. Whole grocery store aisles are dedicated to “gluten-free” pastas, breads and cake mixes, “lactose-free” milks, yogurts and cheeses, and “nut-free” products of all kinds for those who live in constant fear of anaphylactic shock from even the slightest exposure to nuts.
Of course, for families like ours, it’s been a godsend. My husband has forever chalked up his lifelong stomach ailments to an intolerance to spicy foods or heavy creams. It wasn’t until recently, by accident, that he discovered a new diet that cut out breads allowed him to eat garlic, hot pepper and creamy sauces with symptom-free abandon. It turns out it wasn’t the shrimp scampi at our favorite restaurant that kept him up at night with cramps, it was the French bread he had before dinner. The revelation, and his sudden passion for gluten-free anything, has meant he can finally give up the industrial-size Tums containers that have soothed him since middle school.
So in a big way, these allergy-conscious food products are making life easier for allergy sufferers, creating happy, loyal consumers only too eager to come back for more, and thankful to their favorite brands for offering them comfort. It’s a very clever, and effective, marketing ploy. It’s a little like setting your neighbor’s house on fire, then selling them the use of your garden hose to put it out.
So what do we do? Well, first we get educated about what we’re putting in our mouths, and what it’s doing to our bodies. As Nation points out, “People know all about pharmaceuticals, and nothing about food.” Count our family in that oblivious mix. Know, too, that according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, eight foods account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions in the U.S.: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.
Often, cutting out just one of these foods, even without an official diagnosis, can work wonders for allergy sufferers, and it seems like everyone’s getting in on the act to make that as easy as possible, Nation included. Her MyFoodMyHealth website offers a low-cost family meal planning resource that helps families juggling multiple and diverse allergies plan a “single, delicious meal” each night that accommodates everyone’s ailments. The concept itself, and the fact that it has attracted nearly 2,000 subscribers already, shows just how complicated allergies have gotten for families to deal with, and how hungry they are for help.
Of course, avoiding food allergens will require not just vigilant label-reading, but for many, it will mean getting back into the kitchen and using fresher, more basic ingredients. While Wal-Mart has announced an important effort to make fresh produce more affordable and healthier foods more accessible, major grocers like Publix and Winn-Dixie have also announced plans to pass on the higher cost of foods, particularly produce, to consumers. So families on a budget and strapped for time will continue to face significant challenges to living allergy-free.
That’s why any long-term attempt to reduce the imposition of food allergies in our lives must include putting pressure on national food manufacturers to return our food supply to its original form. Stop pumping hormones into our milk and meat, stop modifying our foods in the lab to make them heartier, take BPA out of the many containers we use.
Because now, the whole neighborhood is burning, and that garden hose will only go so far.
Nicole Brochu is an editorial writer and a health columnist for the Sun Sentinel. Contact her at email@example.com.
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