Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Food Intolerance - Trick or Treat?

I was so happy to see ”Watchdog” exposing some of the worst of the high street allergy scams, just a few weeks ago. This is a subject that has been a bee in my bonnet for years. Thanks to the BBC millions of people will now know the truth about these scams, but will they take any notice? Sadly, I doubt it. In case you were not convinced by Ms Robinson and her team, here’s a bit more detailed information.

Of course, food intolerance and food allergy are both fact, but if the patients that came through my surgery door and the thousands who contacted my radio programme on London’s LBC are anything to go by, they’re fact for no more than 10 percent of those who believe they’re suffering with either of these conditions. One or two percent would be nearer the mark.

Nine out of ten are either the victims of bogus testing, self delusion, attention seeking, a wish to be part of the latest food fad or they’re using the conditions as a cover for an eating disorder. A few years ago I enjoyed a delicious breakfast with Charlton Heston and was appalled when he told me that it was quite common in California for friends to arrive at his house for dinner carrying a brown paper bag full of carrots and mung beans, as they were intolerant of all other foods. He described them as the most boring dinner guests imaginable and how thankful I was that this food lunacy was confined to the west coast of America.

How wrong I was. You can’t enjoy a meal with friends in the UK without finding at least one person - nearly always a woman - who claims to be allergic to wheat, dairy products, coffee, tea, alcohol, chocolate and virtually everything else that the host has provided. They’re usually pencil thin, very pale, hyperactive and can’t seem to talk about anything other than their dietary problems and the wonderful ”therapist” they finally discovered. A month later it’s a different therapist who’s removed another two foods from their permitted list and is the guru of the moment.

There’s no doubt that severe food allergies, especially to nuts and seeds, but also fish, shellfish, strawberries and in rare instances almost any food you can think of, can be a life threatening condition. Similarly an inability to consume milk products is common in peoples from India and the Far East as they frequently don’t produce the enzyme, lactase, which is needed to break down the milk sugar, lactose. But to imagine that vast numbers of the British population suffer multiple food allergies or intolerance is utter madness. Living on a highly restricted diet which removes whole food groups from your normal daily eating is a risky business. Drastic weight loss, nutritional deficiencies, infertility, greater risk of osteoporosis in later life, diminished mental ability, chronic fatigue, can all result from self inflicted malnutrition in the midst of plenty.

The difference between allergy and intolerance is one of degree. Allergies occur extremely rapidly and can be triggered by the minutest particles of the guilty foods - the latest research from the American National Institute of Allergy and Infective Diseases shows that 1/44,000th of a peanut is enough. Touching a work surface which has been used for preparing fish, eating from a bowl which has previously contained nuts and has not been scrupulously cleaned, a tiny residue of egg in a food mixer - these are enough to send the sufferer to hospital as an acute emergency. This is why those with known severe reactions carry a pen injector for the instant self-administration of life saving adrenaline.

Intolerance can take one or two days to produce symptoms and may be the result of a gradual build up of a particular food or repeated exposure to it over successive days. Unlike allergies these intolerance reactions do not produce measurable changes in the blood and again unlike allergies there are no specific blood or skin tests which accurately demonstrate their presence.

It seems that a high intake of foods rich in vitamin E means a lower risk of allergies, especially hay fever and asthma - one more reason to make sure that dietary vitamin E is maintained at a good level. Getting more zinc increases natural immunity and more magnesium improves lung function and less salt in the diet helps lessen the severity of asthma.

So, unless you know for certain that you have real allergies, everyone should be eating more avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, wholegrain cereals for vitamin E; plus pumpkin seeds, shellfish, liver (but not if you’re pregnant), cheese, sardines and eggs for zinc; beans, almonds, Brazil nuts, brown rice, seafood, bananas and dried fruits for magnesium.

Beware The Bogus Allergy Testers

Food allergies are a convenient way of explaining many health problems and there is an army of practitioners who claim to be able to change your life by diagnosing allergies with a variety of highly questionable techniques.

Electro dermal testing - the Vega test - is one of the most widely available of the many unscientific and totally unreliable allergy tests. Frequently promoted by itinerant testers travelling from health store to health store, the client fills in a health questionnaire then is tested for their ’food intolerances’ by the meter readings on the machine that are produced when the client holds a metal rod in one hand, and glass phials of suspect substances are put into the machine.

In a study carried out by Which?, Vega testing failed to identify any of the known and existing allergies in their researchers, but 60 percent of the tests claimed to detect an allergy to cow’s milk though none of the researchers actually suffered from this problem.

There’s another test that hits the public with a double whammy. They claim that allergies make you fat and with their test you can find the offending foods, cut them out of your diet, get rid of your allergies and lose weight - what a flight of fancy. The test purports to measure the way in which white blood cells react to foods and other chemicals. Once identified these foods are removed from your diet and because this prevents these irritating white cells from producing harmful chemicals, patients not only feel well but get thin.

Firstly there is no evidence that food allergies cause weight gain and secondly this is another test that has produced totally different lists of foods to be avoided from two blood samples from the same person but sent under different names.
Hair and blood analysis are more examples of bogus allergy testing. A snippet of hair or a spot of blood on a piece of blotting paper are sent to the practitioner who dowses them with a pendulum. The practitioner hangs the pendulum over the sample and if it swings clockwise it means yes, anticlockwise is no.

Voice diagnosis is offered by people who claim to detect allergies simply by speaking to patients on the telephone and ”picking up their vibrational energy”. Again, for a substantial fee a diagnosis is made, pills and potions prescribed and subsequent phone calls charged by the minute.

Biofeedback allergy testing claims that toxin imbalances reduce the efficiency of the body and can detect allergies which lead to exhaustion and poor health. Sensors are attached to the forehead, wrists and ankles that produce readings which enable the practitioner to diagnose food allergies. Again, no scientific evidence to support the claims.

Applied kinesiology uses muscle testing to find allergies. The practitioner tests the strength of a large muscle - the thigh or upper arm - then places a glass phial of the substance to be tested on the patient’s belly button and tests the muscle again. If muscle strength is weaker then the patient is allergic to that substance. Although this sounds outrageous and there is no clinical evidence, there are a very few highly experienced practitioners who seem to get reliable results. It takes extensive training and years of practice to be expert but many practitioners have no background medical education - conventional or complementary and have only done a weekend course. So beware.

It’s bad enough when people with real health problems resort to these bogus allergy tests and end up following diets which are guaranteed to result in long term health problems. What’s even worse is the increasing number of healthy young women who turn to people with little or no training or qualifications, simply because food allergies are the latest fad. They’re wasting their money and jeopardising their health.

Even the recognised scientific methods of allergy testing are not always reliable when it comes to food allergies, and even less so when the problem is food intolerance. The traditional patch tests done by scratching the skin and applying extracts from a range of different foods, pollens and other substances will only determine whether your skin is sensitive to that particular substance. And even a violent skin reaction doesn’t mean guaranteed problems when you eat it.

Medical blood tests which measure the way blood cells respond to potential allergens are probably a more reliable indicator of food allergies but the only certain way of diagnosing food intolerance is the exclusion diet, used by leading authorities like Professor Jonathan Brostoff and Dr John Hunter at Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge.

The 19 permissible foods are:

Sunflower oil, Trout, Lamb, Venison, Cod, Hake, Plaice, Sole, Salmon, Mackerel, Pears, Kiwi, Sweet potatoes, Carrots, Chinese bean sprouts, Parsnips, Turnips, Swede, Marrow, Courgettes. Plus at least four pints of purified water each day and very weak herb or Chinese green tea without milk.

After two weeks introduce other foods in this order: Tap water, Potatoes, Cow’s milk, Yeast, Tea, Rye, Butter, Onions, Eggs, Porridge Oats, Coffee, Chocolate, Barley, Citrus fruits, Corn, Cow’s cheese, White wine, Shellfish, Natural cow’s milk yoghurt, Vinegar, Wheat and Nuts.

Only try one new food every two days and if there is a reaction, don’t try it again for at least a month. Carry on with the list when any symptoms stop. It’s really important that you keep a careful diary so that you can check on your progress.

But this means hard work, sticking to the rules and waiting for weeks to get any answers. How much easier to pop into a local shop, pay a few quid and get an instant result. Who cares if it is accurate? Obviously, not the people who are trying to flog you this ridiculous non-science nonsense.


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