By Dr. Larry Chiaramonte
While I salute Dr. Mehmet Oz (TV doctor and great surgeon) and a colleague Dr. Mike Roizen of the Cleveland Clinic for drawing attention to food allergies and what to do about them, I have to take issue with some of what has been published in their names.
The article says: “Scientists are racing to pin down the causes of this puzzling outbreak [of food allergies]. Leading the list are the usual suspects: emulsifiers and additives used in processed foods, such as peanut butters that are made with more than just peanuts, lunch meats, margarine, mayonnaise, sauces, candy and bakery products. Interesting fact: Emulsifiers seem to make a protein (like peanuts) appear foreign, so the immune system attacks it. In China, where peanuts are boiled and peanut butter is made only with peanuts, the allergy is rare; when the nuts are fried or cooked in non-peanut oils and emulsifiers are added for quick spreading, the allergy pops up.”
Leading the list? Whose list is that exactly? Not mine. I am also struck by the phrase “Interesting fact.” What dictionary do the authors use to define what a fact is? If it’s a fact, why does it only “seem to make a protein appear foreign”?
I have never seen any competent discussion of the food allergy epidemic that included these emulsifiers, which are added to prevent the separation of oil from water in blended foods. Ever wonder why Jif remains uniform in the jar while in Smuckers the oil rises to the top? It’s because Jif has an emulsifier while Smuckers only contains peanuts and salt. And by the way, Smuckers is just as allergenic.
The “real facts” are both more complicated and more interesting. The allergenic proteins in peanuts, it happens, are very much like those in intestinal parasites, and that is why allergic immune systems attack. Is there less peanut allergy in China? Yes. And does it have something to do with the way peanuts are prepared? Yes. But that has nothing to do with additives. It has to do with the fact that roasting—our preferred method—leaves the most allergenic proteins intact, whereas boiling, frying, and pickling, which are popular in China and Korea, break them down.
The fault, dear Oz, is not in our food but in ourselves. It’s not that the food has changed. Those protein domains common to parasites and peanuts have remained intact over thousands of years, as have the ones that connect dust mites, roaches, and shellfish. I am all for labeling genetically modified foods, but not because I think they will result in new allergens. The real problem is that the ways we have altered life and the environment make some of us reactive to these primitive proteins. As MDs Kari Nadeau and Anne Ellis, and Michelle North, PhD have written on our website, there are plenty of things we do to our environment and our bodies that change the way our genetic codes are expressed that make us vulnerable to allergens. How much mayonnaise would a mother have to eat to make her baby allergic anyway?
Can emulsifiers affect our health? Maybe. Other additives? Probably. But there are lots of food allergic children whose mothers ate organic foods throughout their pregnancies.
Should we have a public discussion of causation? Yes. But a selective, glib discussion like this one that Dr. Oz put his name on is a distraction. Fixing the allergy epidemic along with the pandemic of non-communicable inflammatory diseases described by Dr. Susan Prescott would be easy if it were just a matter of changing the way food is prepared, but it’s a much bigger problem. Dr. Oz would put his celebrity to better use by tackling the larger issues.
Diagram from http://people.umass.edu/