Cutting common allergens from our diets could have beneficial effects on health
January 1st 2019, 15:06
Government authorities responsible for food safety—whether it's the Food and Drug Administration in the US, the Food Standards Agency in the UK, Health Canada or the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia—are legally required to label specific allergens, referred to as 'legal allergens' to reflect this obligation.
Although we're actually exposed to hundreds or thousands of possible allergens in our food on a daily basis, there are only eight to 14 'legal allergens,' depending on which country you're in.
Interestingly, most Western diets are heavily reliant on foods containing these allergens. Is it because we're exposed to them so much that many of us have become sensitive to them? Or that antigens within these foods have changed chemically as agriculture and the food industry have changed? Or how about digging into a little conspiracy theory: is it possible that Big Food likes to use these foods for all they're worth because they're among the ones that are easiest to get us addicted to? And could Big Pharma be in on the act, too? Sick people, after all, are good for business, especially if they still manage to live long lives.
I can't give you any hard evidence for this kind of conspiracy, as these corporate interests don't make a point of publicizing the sensitive discussions that go on in their boardrooms. But judging from the books of whistleblowers like Dr Marcia Angell (Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption, 2009) and Dr Peter Gøtzsche (Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare, 2013), it isn't far-fetched.
Technically speaking, an allergen contains one or more specific chemicals (antigens) that trigger a powerful response by the immune system in an effort to combat a perceived threat. Standard food intolerance testing that relies on IgE antibodies is by no means conclusive for all allergens and can sometimes produce spurious results.
That's especially the case when someone has already entered the downward spiral toward a full-blown autoimmune disease like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
Cereal grains that contain gluten, like wheat, barley and rye, belong to one very important group of allergens. These foods represent the mainstay of most Western diets.
One percent of the population—one in 100, or around 3.3 million Americans and 650,000 Brits—have diagnosed celiac disease. But upwards of 20 percent—a stunning 65 million-plus Americans and 13 million Brits—have what is referred to as 'non-celiac gluten sensitivity' (NCGS). This is often expressed as bloating, gastrointestinal upset and brain fog, and may lead to a leaky gut with chronic, often daily, exposure to gluten.
That's a lot of people, and it's the increasing recognition by the public (sorry, mainstream medicine has still got its head in the sand on this one) that's been driving the 'free from' revolution, especially foods free from gluten.
Researchers—when they can get funding—are trying to get on top of this issue. A recent study found that mothers who consume the most gluten are twice as likely to give birth to children who go on to develop type 1 diabetes.1
Remember that type 1 diabetes is another autoimmune condition, meaning the body has lost its ability to discriminate between friendly and unfriendly molecules in the body and moves into a persistent, heightened inflammatory state.
Unsurprisingly, the authors of this new study ask whether it might be the mother's increased gut permeability ('leaky gut') that contributes to the exposure of the developing embryo to the gluten. For us, the study's main finding is a resounding message that mothers—and, frankly, everyone else—should avoid gluten altogether.
It's the very reason that the Alliance for Natural Health Food4Health guidelines, developed to contest advice offered through government food guidelines, are 100 percent free of gluten.
Dairy is another big part of many people's diet, and yes, all products containing milk or other forms of dairy are 'legal allergens.'
The proteins in milk can give rise to a true allergic reaction. But around 65 percent of the world's adult population—including me—has a reduced ability to digest dairy. We're lactose intolerant, or more correctly, lactase deficient (lactase being the enzyme that breaks down lactose). In East Asian communities especially, the proportion can exceed 90 percent.
You don't want dairy? How about soy? Well, that's a 'legal allergen,' too. You've heard soy might be GMO or might interfere with your hormones, so you go for almond milk. Guess what? It's made from a tree nut—another allergen group! You getthe picture.
Imagine if a very large number of us decided to reduce our health risks, and we were to take at least one of these groups of allergens out of our diets altogether—say, wheat, barley and rye, as we suggest in our Food4Health guidelines. How much better might we feel? How much healthier might kids born to mothers who eat in this way be? In fact, other than Big Food and Pharma, might we all become the winners?
1 BMJ, 2018; 362: k3547