I grew up in the Philippines with no food allergies whatsoever. For a few years I abstained from certain foods, such as red meat, but as a matter of preference rather than a life-or-death situation. To this day, I can still eat whatever I want.
When I moved to the States six years ago for school, I met locals who were allergic to gluten. I noticed right away, while grocery shopping, how prolific gluten-free food products were, whereas in my hometown it was virtually non-existent. I would soon learn that gluten is found in wheat, pretty much the most common type of bread I buy and order. I was definitely not allergic, as were most Filipinos who have yet to hear about the strange gluten-free diet seemingly common in my new surroundings.
Fast forward to 2016 when I discovered the same gluten-free products from the US at a high-end wellness store in Manila. They seem rather popular, given the wide variety available. But I have yet to meet a Filipino who is genuinely allergic to gluten, so I was inclined to surmise that the gluten-free popularity is prompted more by its status symbol potential rather than its intended health benefits. What I do have are Filipino friends who are allergic to shellfish, and that is quite common. Some have had it since they were kids and cannot seem to outgrow it.
It begs the question: Why do people in the US experience new food allergies like gluten and those of us in Asia, particularly the Philippines, don’t?
My curiosity is triggered by my passion for food, and sympathy for those with forced deprivations. I cannot help but pity folks who will never know the joys of devouring an entire lobster with their bare hands or savoring a warm crust of freshly-baked fermented sourdough bread. Devoid of an exaggeration, these indulgences make my life meaningful. In fact, I travel 8,000+ miles and go through a lot of trouble to get visas just to enjoy them. So I want to understand why some people cannot relish the same earthly delights as everyone else.
Finding justice was made easier by two documentaries I found on Netflix: Rotten and Cooked.
In Rotten, there is an episode dedicated to food allergies, which brings to light the concerns not only of people who have them but also of entrepreneurs whose products cause allergies, such as peanut growers. Their livelihood, which has been passed on through generations, is now getting a bad rap, much to their chagrin and utter bewilderment. How did a well-loved snack whose source and cultivation have not changed much over the years suddenly inflict harm on people? And how did these people lose their immunity to certain nutrients in common foods?
In Cooked, Michael Pollan posits that allergies to gluten may, in fact, be allergies to instant yeast. It is much cheaper yet disrupts the natural but longer fermentation process that occurs in the typical bread-making process. The end product of the more commercialized version loses the good bacteria, which is the by-product of fermentation. It reminds me of another lesson I gleaned from his earlier documentary “In Defense of Food” about refined flours and sugars. The refineries needed to produce them and the additional steps of refining cost more, yet in the actual process of refining, the most nutritious components of the whole grains and whole cane sugars are removed. Did we just spend more time and money to the detriment of our health?
Both documentaries theorized that America’s total rejection of germs and bacteria could have led to these new and worsening allergies. Not all bacteria are bad, as demonstrated by the ancient process of fermentation, but we see “kills 99.99% of bacteria” everywhere. Such an all-out marketing assault on bacteria, unfortunately, does not discriminate between good and bad, and America might be worse off for being too clean.
Contrast that to the Philippines, where 100 million people are poor and gluten-free allergies are unheard of. People here, where there is not much food to go around, to begin with, will think you are some alien from outer space if you have food allergies. You eat whatever you can find, nevermind that flies hovered over a cold pot of cheap stew you bought from a street food vendor. We are taught to wash our hands, given our history with cholera, but pollution, filth and slum environments are part of daily life, no matter how rich you are. Could we have built our resistance to food allergies by not being so clean?
I hope some medical professionals much more qualified than I am to examine this phenomenon can shed light on it with some much-needed answers. I could hardly envision existing without nuts, dairy, or gluten, or worrying that the contents of the food I am about to partake could cost me my life. It is not fair for consumers, entrepreneurs, and restaurateurs, and the world in general increasingly deprived of simple pleasures from simple foods.