Thursday, January 19, 2012

Chinese People And Food Allergies

I recently read a story in the newspaper about the tragic death of a little girl in Virginia because of her peanut allergy. The seven year old was given a peanut by a friend at school. She immediately went into cardiac arrest and was unable to be revived by the paramedics. Some reports state that about four percent of Americans, or over 12 million people, have severe anaphylactic reactions to specific foods. I've seen people who are allergic to nearly every food group known. The most common ones I've seen are peanuts and shellfish. But I've also known people who are allergic to milk, eggs, strawberries, watermelons, wheat, nuts, tomatoes, chocolates, and many other kinds of foods. Our school has very strict policies on what kinds of food can be brought for lunch. While peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were common snacks at school when I was growing up, it is strictly forbidden in our children's schools. Organizing birthday parties can be a minefield as parents bring lists of foods their children aren't allowed to eat. Cake? Does it have eggs? Is it gluten free? Ice cream? Can you have frozen yogurt instead? Cookies? Gluten free and chocolate free please.

Why are so many Americans allergic to foods? By contrast, why do so few Chinese people I know have food allergies, or allergies in general? I'm not talking about lactose intolerance, which is fairly common with Asians and doesn't cause anaphylaxis but instead produces abdominal cramps and gas in the affected. Most Chinese people can and will eat almost anything. Many foods are cooked in peanut oil. Peanuts are a favorite snack any time of day. I can't imagine a Chinese family who could get by without consuming eggs. Wheat products are ubiquitous, in everything from dim sum to Chinese bao. One time, my brother came back from school and announced to my mom that he was allergic to MSG. She summarily dismissed him by saying that was crazy talk. He'd been eating MSG all his life and it is ridiculous that he is now allergic to the quintissential Chinese seasoning. He never mentioned it again and she never cut back on her use of the substance.

I always wondered if Americans suffer so many food allergies because we have so many foods to choose from. I can't imagine some poor rural Chinese or African who are just on the verge of malnutrition turning down bread or peanuts because they have anaphyactic reactions to them. Are food allergies mainly a disease of the wealthy, like obesity and coronary artery disease? Since most Chinese in the U.S. are first or one and half generation, we are not yet affected as much by food allergies. But I've noticed that some second generation Chinese children are now afflicted with this condition. Will Chinese restaurants in the future have to offer wheat free and gluten free shau mai? Will all those seafood restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley have to stock up on EpiPens because their customers are having more allergies to shrimp and crab? Only time will tell.

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