Editor’s Note: Part I may be found at TheTahoeWeekly.com
I wrote about how much more prevalent food allergies are today compared to 10 or 20 years ago in my May 21 column. Now, I’ll get down to some of the more necessary information of what food allergies are and how to avoid a reaction. When it comes to getting sick from food, there are really three reasons – allergies, intolerance and poisoning.
An allergy is an immune system response to a food that the body mistakenly thinks is harmful. Once the immune system makes that finding, it creates antibodies to fight against it so the next time the person eats that particular food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals, including histamine, in order to protect the body. All these chemicals cause the onset of the allergic reactions that can affect the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal track, skin and/or the cardiovascular system. As you can imagine, depending on what systems and how much of a reaction there is, the event can have some bad results and even cause death.
When people say they have to be gluten free, they are saying that they have celiac disease. This is a disease that damages the small intestine and essentially keeps the body from being able to absorb the needed nutrients from food. It takes only a small amount of gluten to cause problems.
Since there are no known cures for allergies, the only way of avoiding a reaction is to avoid ingesting the foods that cause the reaction. This is where things get really interesting because what you are really trying to avoid is ingesting the proteins from that food. The thing is, proteins can move around through the air or be transferred by simply using the same knife or bowl or cutting board as was used for the food in question.
Food intolerances are different, but because they have a lot of the same symptoms, they are often mistaken for allergies. Unlike an allergy, which involves the immune system, intolerance involves the digestive system. What happens is the body lacks an enzyme needed to process that particular food properly. Since it is the digestive system that is affected, the results can be severe bloating and abdominal pains even when it is small amounts of that particular food that have been eaten. Lactose is what comes to mind when talking intolerances where the enzyme needed to digest milk sugar is missing. The good thing is that there are pills or drops that can be taken before eating that will effectively replace the missing enzyme, thus allowing the person to eat that food.
Food poisoning occurs when you eat tainted food that is spoiled or mishandled. Foods kept unrefrigerated or not properly heated. or meats that have been frozen and thawed more than once are the most common culprits. Unlike an allergic reaction that can occur within a few minutes up to a couple hours, poisoning usually will take at least a few hours and sometimes a few days to fully manifest and bring on the symptoms.
Talk to restaurant staff
When preparing an order at a restaurant that has a food allergy involved, the food allergy portion has to be prepared as a separate order with all possible precautions taken. When that part of the order is prepared, the cook has to first wash his hands or change his gloves. Then the whole station is thoroughly cleaned and sanitized with all the equipment changed out and cleaned again before he starts putting the order together.
Mikuni general manager Steve Kantanke told me of a woman that was allergic to shellfish, so she ordered some tempura veggies. Steve had to tell her no because they didn’t have a separate fryer. What she never considered was that heat doesn’t kill the proteins. She told him of how she had a reaction a few weeks earlier and that explained it.
Hopefully, now that you know how serious allergies can be and how easy it can be for the proteins in question to be transferred from one food to another, you can also see how vital communication is between the customer and the restaurant. If you have an allergy and go out to eat, talk with the manager and not just the waitperson.
I want to thank Steve Kantanke and Chef Atsushi Mineki for their time and insight for this article. Most of the information I used came from the Mikuni. If you have any other questions, feel free to contact me.