Most of us are aware of allergic reactions, but may not be of allergies to foods. These cause a series of symptoms from the classic skin rashes to colic, diarrhea, and general intestinal discomfort. Despite continuing debate, food allergies imply that a specific antigen has been identified, and immunoglobulin E, abbreviated IgE, our organism’s antibodies, have been released against the perceived invader. For allergies are our bodies’ reactions to invasion. The immune system goes up in arms, releasing histamines and the other chemicals with the aim of getting rid of the offender at all costs, punishing the unauthorized transgression with death by chemical strangulation. The immune system usually succeeds, but in the meantime we’ve gone through hell and back. Common signs of food allergies are dark circles or puffiness under the eyes, horizontal creases in the lower eyelid, chronic fluid retention and bloating, and swollen glands.
However, our bodies object to certain foods, without any antigens or the release of IgE. These reactions cannot be called allergies, although the physical symptoms may be very similar in the long run. To distinguish them from allergies, health professionals call these reactions food intolerances, food sensitivities or even hypersensitivities, adverse metabolic reactions or simply adverse reactions, food anaphylaxis etc. Unlike food allergies proper, which provoke almost instant reactions, food intolerances are frequently delayed and may take a number of hours or even days to develop. And there may be no typical involvement of the immune system as described above, that is, an all-out war. Our bodies do not react as in the case of outright invaders, but more as if they are faced with illegal immigrants. This does not mean, of course, that we are much better off with a food intolerance than an allergy. But most allergies are relatively easy to spot. Sensitivities to food are not so easy. At the end of this article are some pointers about what to do, if you wish to know whether you are sensitive to some foods.
It is now fairly well established that the foods most prone to cause allergic reactions are cereals based on wheat and corn, dairy products (save yogurt), caffeine, yeast and citrus fruits, while one of the least offensive was honey. Hardly anyone is allergic to meat, most vegetables and fruits, while some people are allergic to crustaceans and mollusks. When these statistical facts are examined from the viewpoint of Evolutionary Nutrition, it is clear that the allergy-causing foods are all new for the human organism. New in a biochemical sense, meaning without well established absorption routes and metabolic pathways for their unimpeded use. The contrary is the case with meat, vegetables, fruits and honey.
Wheat started being produced in the Neolithic, say ten thousand years ago. Dairy products are of approximately the same age. Can ten-thousand-year-old foods be really considered new? Apparently so. Which of nature’s products are perceived as foods and which as invaders by our bodies, depends on our genetic code. And although our genes change with time adapting to changing circumstances, that is a very slow process. It takes virtually hundreds of generations for even small changes. We share our genetic code with the other higher primates to an extent of 99 percent or so, and even though our line separated from theirs some seven or eight million years ago. If we assume we have 50,000 genes or thereabouts, this corresponds to an average turnover of one gene per 15,000 years. That is not exactly a galloping tempo of genetic change.
At the same time lactose intolerance, to take one common food sensitivity as an example, is wildly different among various populations of this planet. The Danes appear to have the lowest rates, perhaps around 3-5 percent. Other Scandinavians are not too far behind, with 8-15 percent. North and Central Europeans are lactose intolerant around 35-50 percent, while people around the Mediterranean may be a lot higher, 50-75 percent, and Africans, Asiatics, and American Negroes up to 90 percent or more. This wide variation shows that our organism is adaptable to new foods like milk and others, but it takes time to reduce allergies to intolerances, if that’s what happens, and even more time to become fully acceptable as normal foods.
Corn, caffeine and citrus products are of course recognizably new. None of them was known to the ancient Greeks or Romans. Crustaceans and mollusks might have predated cereals and dairy products in our diet, but they are not found very frequently in the earlier excavations. On the other hand, fruits, vegetables, meat and honey are some of our oldest foods. Predictably, very few people are allergic to them.
However there is an obvious question that arises here. This is the recent rise in allergies mentioned at the beginning of this article. Were the named foods relatively acceptable before, and suddenly became causes of allergic reactions? That does not make sense, for it is the reverse of the normal long-term mechanism of nature. Then how explain the rise in allergies during the last few decades?
Partly, it is no doubt caused from the fact that all sorts of substances, ranging from fertilizers, pesticides, heavy or toxic metals, etc, have found their way in our foods and through them in our bodies. The immune system recognizes these foreign invaders, and does its utmost to fight them, what is recognized by us as allergic reactions. Partly, however, it seems to stem from the fact that a generation or so back, it became highly fashionable to wean infants very early, in order to spare the deterioration of the mother’s
bust and accommodate working mothers. This was done with the consent and support of many medical practitioners and other health professionals, who believed that cow’s milk and baby foods are perfectly adequate substitutes for mother’s milk.
They were grossly and sadly mistaken. It takes time for the infant to develop the necessary enzyme and hormonal systems that will allow it to be weaned without complications. When it is introduced to new foods before it is adequately equipped to deal with them, a host of food allergies and intolerances accumulate and develop, which are bound to bedevil the infant’s existence for the rest of its life. Our dietary sins are not only cumulative, they are also dishonorable. We make the mistakes, and others pay for them.