What is food to one, to another is rank poison: food allergy, past and present

There has been an unprecedented spike in the amount of food allergy sufferers in recent years. Latest reports from doctors in the USA state that 11% of American adults have food allergies, and here in the UK there are an average two million people suffering from a food allergy. The risk of experiencing anaphylactic shock has never been higher.

Following the much-publicised into the deaths of several young people, who died after eating at high street food vendors and restaurants last year, there has been a rise in demands for reform to food labelling legislation in the UK, to prevent unnecessary deaths in future.

Food allergy investigations

A recent investigation conducted by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) revealed that allergens were found in a quarter of sampled foods. In almost 3,000 tests carried out since 2016, it was revealed that a whopping 673 were found to be unsatisfactory. This means that allergens were present in these samples but were not declared either on packaging or verbally by staff.

What’s more, in November 2018, BBC’s Watchdog Live discovered that leading restaurants and coffee shops in the UK were providing customers with incorrect food allergy advice. Out of the six investigated by the BBC’s undercover journalists, there was only one that was providing the correct food allergy information to customers.

A brief history of the food allergy

Food allergy is not a modern phenomenon. Ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, is widely credited with first recognising that food could be responsible for adverse symptoms. In his writings, Hippocrates often referred to the presence of ‘hostile humours’ in men, which made them suffer with symptoms following the ingestion of cheese.

However, before Hippocrates musings, two Chinese emperors (c.2735-2598), Shen Nong and Huang Di, provided advice in their work Shi Jin-Jing, which translates to ‘interdictions concerning food’. In these writings, pregnant women were advised to provide foods such as chicken, shrimp and other meats. They also advised that individuals with skin conditions were to avoid certain foods.

Interestingly, Richard III, who was the King of England from 1843 broke out in hives whenever he ate strawberries. It is said that he once consumed a “messe of strauberies” to frame an opponent of his. Blaming his allergic reaction on witchcraft, his opponent was promptly beheaded.

In the 17th Century, for the first time, medical literature published case reports focused on food hypersensitivity reactions. Jean Baptiste van Helmont reported an asthma attack, following the ingestion of fish in Oriatrike in 1662. Later, Robert Willan described “urticaria” after eating foods such as almonds, mushrooms and fish. He also described “uriticara febralis” otherwise known as “fatal anaphylaxis” following the ingestion of mussels and lobsters in Treatise on Dermatology.

However, it wasn’t until 1921, following the now classic experiment of Prausnitz that the immunologic basis of allergic reactions was considered a scientific investigation. The Prausnitz-Kustner test proved that sensitivity could be transferred by a factor in serum. However, in the 1930s, food allergy emerged as a highly controversial sub-category of the allergy topic, not taken seriously by medical professionals, despite the success of Prausnitz’s experiment.

While it was easy to identify the food at fault in anaphylactic reactions, these were rare. Instead, food allergies focused their attentions on patients whose reactions were delayed by up to 48 hours after eating food. This was more difficult to diagnose. As such, reactions were typified by symptoms such as:

  • Skin reactions
  • Diarrhoea
  • Asthma
  • Migraine

As well as psychiatric problems, including depression and anxiety.

Many doctors doubted that food allergy was responsible for undiagnosed chronic illnesses. Some were so unconvinced of food allergists’ claims that patients complaining of food allergy symptoms were referred to psychiatrists, with the firm believe that their symptoms were psychosomatic.

The peanut allergy

By the 1980s, food allergy was a marginalised topic within the field of medicine, until a new phenomenon emerged, forcing doctors to take the topic of food allergy seriously.

In 1988, an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal described a case in which a woman died after eating a biscuit that contained peanut oil. This was the first time a peanut allergy report had been made in a medical journal.

However, by the 1990s, peanut allergy fatalities were massively commonplace, and according to US charity, Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), rates of peanut and tree nut allergy tripled between 1997 and 2008.

Even by today’s standards, research into the root cause and potential cure to anaphylactic reactions to food allergy – and particularly why these reactions are increasing at such an exponential rate – is woefully inadequate, leaving sufferers instead, faced with controversial hypothesis, many of which have not been backed by much scientific research. These include:

  • Hygiene: this argues that children who grow up in excessively clean environments struggle to distinguish between harmful pathogens and harmless protein
  • Cooking: indicating that peanut allergy is more common in countries where peanuts are roasted, rather than boiled.
  • Infant feeding: encouraging mothers with a family history of food allergy to introduce peanuts early on in their infancy to avoid a growing intolerance.

None of these have been compounded in scientific fact, which leads to a general confusion about food allergy, even today.

How DietTree aim to tackle irresponsible food labelling

DietTree was founded in 2018, in response to the unnecessary deaths of young people after doing something as basic as eating. It is tragic to us that since the 28th Century BC, that not much progress has been made in curing food allergies. Awareness has certainly improved, but recent events only amplified that there is much more to be done in having food allergy taken seriously.

It is clear that there is a distinct difference between an intolerance and an allergy, but the awareness surrounding the consequence of mixing the two is severely lacking. A single splash of a ingredient someone is allergic to can result in death – not hives or itchy skin – death. What we are aiming to do is to, not only raise awareness of the importance in understanding food allergy, but also to create a nationwide-accessible database of allergen information, underpinned by a community of individual users and companies, that can support one another on where and what to eat; identifying what is safe to eat and what to avoid.

The initial reason for forming the company was as a result of the Young Enterprise Scheme that brought our team together. However, understanding how fundamentally vital solving the food allergy crisis is, we are committed to DietTree and to our food allergy app beyond the realms of this competition.

We are working with a North-East based software development company, OnTrac Ltd, who are supporting us in the development of our mobile app, with a live version of our iOS app pending for February.

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