Free-from common sense

Gluten free, dairy free, lactose free, sugar free. Free-from ranges in shops are booming as more and more of us hop on dietary bandwagons, attaching ourselves to intolerances as though each one we can list makes us a bit more special.

Gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan… mmmm

But in the past week it’s become clear that those same free-from ranges are more than a fad to some people – and the rest of us hopping on them, although increasing their availability, could ultimately lead to a dangerous carelessness among food providers.

The dieter who looks for a gluten free roll while ignoring the flour in their accompanying chowder; the dairy avoider who still takes a ‘sup’ of milk in their tea because soy just doesn’t taste the same… we’re the real reason some restaurants and a large segment of the public are entirely unsympathetic to the idea of food intolerances.

Food intolerance is more often than not self-diagnosed or the false result of an unproven pharmacy or homeopathic testing kit. It can take myriad forms – some people will feel bloated after eating bread, others will swear dairy is bad for their sinuses, still others will tell you sugar gives them spots. Every one of us can identify foods that disagree with us, but we’ll probably still risk them the odd time because whatever our symptoms, they’re not serious, immediate or life threatening.

Food allergies, on the other hand, can kill.

Food allergies peak at anaphylaxis, a reaction so extreme to an allergen that the sufferer will be unable to breathe. It’s a serious condition and one made very memorable by the 90s movie classic My Girl, in which the young protagonist dies of anaphylactic shock after being stung by a swarm of bees.

Remember Thomas J and his tragic death by bee sting?

Most people will remember the shocking story of 14 year old Emma Sloan, who died on O’Connell Street in 2015 after suffering an anaphylactic reaction to a peanut sauce she’d eaten by mistake in a nearby Chinese restaurant. The law on epipens was changed after a pharmacist refused to issue her with one without a prescription.

Anaphylaxis is in the news this week due to a furore over the Sony movie Peter Rabbit, in which the protagonist is seen to throw blackberries at his nemesis McGregor, who is allergic to them and suffers a severe anaphylactic reaction.

Parents of kids with allergies were even more horrified when an Ireland AM segment on the issue appeared to make light of the problem, with suggestions in some coverage that objections to the scene were ‘PC gone mad’.

One parent who spoke movingly on our show, Anne, described how she brings her son to school each morning and hands him over to his SNA hoping against hope that he does not come into contact with one of his allergens that day. They include cow’s milk protein, something which is contained in not just the obvious culprits but in all sorts of processed foods. She explained how she lives each day hoping that it will not bring another ambulance rushing her son to hospital as she watches him fade before her very eyes.

Another parent explained how when allowing her severely peanut-allergic daughter to a disco, she has to have not just the usual chats about staying safe and looking after yourself, but telling her to be careful of kissing any boys who may have consumed peanuts that day. It kills the moment, a bit, she acknowledged, but I think all of us would rather see a dead romance than a dead child.

So if you’re a ‘free from’ bandwagon hopper, just remember that drop of milk or spoon of sugar isn’t going to kill you, and you need to make that clear to your server or the chef if you’ve already specified that you’re off it. Otherwise they’re jumping through the kind of hoops they should be reserving for people with real problems.

And if you’ve spent the week shouting ‘PC gone mad’ and telling people who could lose their loved ones any time to a carelessly opened packet of peanuts, a badly written menu, or an uninformed waiter to ‘lighten up’, just take a moment to think about the fear they live with. Then ask yourself, is your opinion more important than their child’s life?

From The Herald 14.02.18

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