Nuts, eggs, dairy, and shellfish. Many Australians would easily associate these foods with allergies, and would sympathetically nod along if you said you or your child had a severe reaction to one of them.
But what if you had to avoid something much more innocuous?
For Jaclyn Jauhiainen, a 22-year-old student from Gosford, one of the scariest things to eat by accident is honey. The same sweet stuff we happily drizzle on our breakfast porridge causes a severe reaction for her, and avoiding it can be tricky, as honey is not amongst the allergens we’re used to seeing highlighted on labels and menus.
“It's made me realise over time how important it is to communicate your allergies, especially if it's something that's less common,” Jaclyn tells SBS Food. It’s taken her years of practice to become more comfortable explaining her food allergies to people, especially when a mention of honey allergy mostly just gets raised eyebrows.
In fact, it’s so rare that when Jaclyn went to her allergy specialist to ask about it, he admitted he’d never heard of someone having a honey allergy before. It took some clever testing (a skin prick test with actual honey) before he could confirm a diagnosis, and it’s still not clear whether Jaclyn is allergic to bees, or if it’s a pollen allergy gone haywire.
Australia has one of the highest food allergy prevalence rates. One in 10 babies and about two in 100 adults are affected, the difference amounting to the fact that many children do outgrow their allergies.
Worldwide, food allergies have been on a steady rise for the past decade, although there’s limited data on non-Western countries. A 2013 survey of 89 countries revealed that studies from south-western China did show a similar rate of food allergies to many European countries, but at the same time, more than half of the countries surveyed didn’t even have reliable data.
“At present there is very little quality data on food allergy from other regions in Asia, or from South America or from Africa where there are unexpectedly high rates of food sensitisation,” the researchers wrote.
These days however, many allergy specialists will readily admit that when it comes to reactions to food, anything is possible.
“I think you can pick anything and you'll probably find someone who's allergic to it,” says Dr Preeti Joshi, allergy specialist at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. “With food allergy, often people don't realise you can be allergic to anything.”
Dr Joshi has several patients with rare food allergies, such as barley, garlic, corn, honey, apple, avocado, watermelon, and even very specific things as apple seeds. One of her younger patients even had a severe anaphylactic reaction to a blueberry.
“I didn't believe it at first, I thought there has to be something else, it's got to be contaminated with something,” she says. But just like with Jaclyn’s honey allergy, tests confirmed that berries were indeed the culprit, sending the boy into such severe anaphylaxis he needed three shots of adrenaline to recover.
There is no cure, so the best strategy for people with food allergies is to try and avoid the dangerous ingredient at all costs. For the most common food allergens, labelling is mandatory, making it a little easier on those who get a life-threatening reaction to a simple peanut. But constant vigilance about what you eat is hard to maintain, and can even take a psychological toll.
Jaclyn, who also has a very common tree nut allergy, has had to send her order back at a cafe, only to see a plate of eggs return with visible traces of nut pesto still attached.
“I could tell it had been just scraped off,” she says. “I was so embarrassed and I just felt so annoyed with myself for having an allergy.”
There are many misconceptions about food allergies. For example, people often don’t distinguish between a food intolerance and an allergy. Intolerance usually just causes gastrointestinal symptoms (although sometimes these can be severe), while an allergic reaction can be life-threatening.
SBS's Insight program asked "why are more people being diagnosed with food allergies?":
A recent Galaxy Research poll shows 56 per cent of Australians think that people with food allergy are just “over cautious” about what they eat. The poll was commissioned by the non-profit Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia in time for 2017 Food Allergy Week, which aims to raise awareness about food allergies.
But for people like Jaclyn, it’s nothing to do with being a “fussy eater”. She has to carry an adrenaline autoinjector, and always be on alert in case she eats something with a hidden allergen.
Allergy misinformation does swing the other way, too. According to Dr Preeti Joshi, sometimes people will assume they have an allergy just because they eat something and get a stomach ache, when it could be “something else altogether”. When you have a suspicion, the best course of action is to go and see an allergy specialist who can run the necessary tests.
“[But] if someone says they have a food allergy, take them seriously,” says Dr Joshi. “Just treat it with respect and be aware of basic measures on how to treat, if someone's having an allergic reaction.”
If you have a rare food allergy that nobody has heard of, it doesn’t make it any less serious, and people should be aware that food allergies in general have a profound effect on one’s life, says Jaclyn.
“With rare allergies that comes down to being more understanding about it,” she says.
Find out about what to do in case of a food allergy emergency on the Food Allergy Aware website. Information in this article does not constitute medical advice and readers should consult their healthcare providers if they suspect they have a food allergy.
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