It's of great annoyance to a food lover like myself to eat a meal alongside a person who does not like a certain food and cannot justify their position.
I’m completely intolerant of people who eat meat but can’t stand the thought of bones or viscera. I argue with anyone who can’t justify why they eat meat or conversely, why they don’t. Anyone who mixes food and mysticism receives the short shrift. The easy way out is to claim an allergy; the rationalist trump card fresh from the medical diagnosis deck.
Last week, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review article of around 12,000 citations of food allergy studies of which only 72 contained sufficient data to analyse. This poor strike rate was due to the utter lack of consensus as to what constitutes a food allergy – their definition required a reproducible immune response to a given foodstuff.
Among their conclusions is that while there is an increased interest in food allergies, they only “affect more than 1 per cent or 2 per cent but less than 10 per cent of the US population. Whether the prevalence of food allergies is increasing is not well established.” Around 30 per cent of American adults report having a food allergy.
The New York Times called in a panel to debate the medical reasons behind the reported increase in food allergies – and there are many reasons, from the hygiene hypothesis to mistaking intolerance for allergy. It doesn’t however look at why there is a gap between perception of having a food allergy – the 30 per cent of people who report and allergy – and the 2-10 per cent of people who have one.
Is the self-diagnosis of food allergies more to do with culture than medicine?
Now I don't dispute the fact there are people within genuine and serious food allergies; reactions can be severe and they are well-documented. What is interesting is the claim that individuals make to having an allergy when the immune reaction is neither severe nor documented.
In a culture where we are bombarded with food choices, in a cognitive sense, it is much easier to eliminate a range of those choices by claiming a food allergy rather than citing a preference for one food or the other. It’s easier to blame that dodgy dumpling experience on an MSG allergy, if you wanted to avoid bad pork-filled wontons for an indefinite period. Holding any predilection takes cognitive effort and a perceived allergy reduces the effort required. Amongst the hundreds of minor choices that you might make in a day, generally not many are well thought out and the short cuts probably make life bearable.
There is also that social pressure to like food. As I mention above, I’m probably the person sitting next to you, trying to convince you eat that weird cuisine that you hate; the mention of an allergy is a cheap way out of an argument with an intolerable blowhard.