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Consider the peanut. Hundreds of these unassuming, tan, football-shaped morsels sit in a dish beckoning you to taste them. "What harm could it do," you think, I'm healthy; I work out; heck, I do both tai bo and Pilates. I'll just taste a few."As you put peanut to mouth, you experience a strange, tingling sensation on your lips. Your tongue feels puffy; your mouth itches. As your body becomes covered in ugly, red welts, you suddently realize you cannot breathe. You try to call for help, but the only sound you can make is a weak croak. Stomach cramps and explosive diarrhea ensue. "Drat," you think, "I should have had the cheese curls!"
What you have just experienced is an allergic reaction, and millions of people have had them. The symptoms of a food allergy may, at first, be much more mild, just a prickly redness on the chest and back. But with each exposure, the reaction gets worse. Peanuts, which are actually not a nut but a legume, are the most common cause of food allergy in the United States. Other common allergy-causing foods include shellfish, tree nuts (like walnuts or hazelnuts), wheat, milk or soybean. Of course, any food may cause an allergic reaction, and identifying the right one is one way a board-certified allergist can help.
Some foods cause different types of problems. Say you are sitting in a Chinese restaurant, sampling the local fare. You find the General Tso's Chicken to be both pungent and sweet, with a hint of apricots. Feeling a bit flushed, you sip some green tea. A dull throbbing in your temples begins, and soon your appetite is gone. Perhaps you need to get some fresh air, since an inexplicable squeezing has wrapped around your chest. This is not a food allergy, but the fabled "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome". It is caused by MSG (monosodium glutamate), which is sometimes used as a flavor enhancer. Some people get similar reactions from sulfites used as preservatives in dried fruit, wines and other foods.
"That's why I don't eat all that processed, chemically enhanced food," you think. "I eat only what I can catch!" You go fishing with your Uncle Hank and land a beautiful freshwater trout. You and Hank celebrate with a couple of home-brewed ales and sail slowly back to shore. Hearing your catch sizzle over an open flame later that evening, you think, "It doesn't get any better than this." This turns out to be all too true, for as you take your first few bites, that familiar itchiness of the throat and swelling of the tongue return. For a moment, you wonder if Uncle Hank slipped some peanuts into the fish. He is, after all, a man who thinks whoopee cusions and joy buzzers are "a real hoot". But no, the culprit is not your weird uncle but scombroidosis. When fish is stored improperly in a warm boat, the flesh breaks down into a chemical that resembles histamine. Histamine is the main chemical your body makes that produces symptoms of allergy, and your trout was laced with this naturally produced toxin.
In summary: Choose the cheese curls instead of the nuts (or would it kill you to have a carrot stick for a change?), order out for pizza instead of Chinese and encourage Uncle Hank to take up golf instead of fishing. And to help you sort out and overcome all these potential culinary pitfalls, seek out your local board-certified allergist. He or she can find out the cause of your symptoms with quick, painless testing and help you dine without fear.