Thursday, August 1, 2013

Are food allergies making you ill? How about that wine? Are you sure?

A quick aside before I get to the topic: Thanks to everyone who participated in the Darkling giveaway. It was a great success. If you happen to be one of the winners, your book is on the way! I've had a few requests for additional review copies, so this is a good time to remind everyone that I do provide review copies free of charge when I have them available. If I don't have any in stock there may be a short wait, but don't let that discourage you. Send an email with your name and address so I can add you to the list. 

Also, note the link at the top of the page: I've just started a Shadow Born giveaway. Be sure to sign up at Goodreads for a chance to win a signed copy.

Now, onto the matter at hand:

The topic of food allergies may seem a pretty far removed from my usual subject matter, but it's something that has had a profound effect on my life. Truth be told, food allergies nearly killed me, and I didn't even know I had them. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but I assure you I'm not exaggerating. I didn't even know I had these allergies until I was in the hospital fighting for my life.

The problem with the symptoms is that they are not uniform. They manifest differently depending on the food as well as the person, and they may be as subtle as a change in mood or difficulty concentrating. I experienced symptoms of depression, mood swings, mild anxiety attacks, difficulty concentrating and/or subtle changes in my perception (as if the world had suddenly, literally, become dark and gloomy). Occaisionally, I would even get sick... But then, we all get sick once in a while, right? That's why my parents chalked my frequent illnesses up to what they called my "weak stomach."

My silent killer is eggs. Yep, good old farm eggs - the kind you scramble up for an omelet or serve on the side with biscuits and gravy. I enjoyed them for most of my childhood. I had reactions of course, but unfortunately the symptoms were so subtle that I never drew a connection between the symptoms and the food. That's why no one else - not even my parents-ever realized I was suffering.It's hard to explain how these things can affect a person who has never experienced then. It's even harder to understand why something like this can go on for years without the victim even realizing what's wrong. The problem is that a person who has lived his or her entire life this way tends to assume that's just how life is. Moods go up and down. Anxieties sneak up on you and then go away as if they never existed. Frequent stomach flues and occaisional panic attacks are just part of life... The sufferer doesn't realize that feeling like this isn't normal, especially in the case of a child or young adult. To make matters worse, some allergens give very minor symptoms at first, and only increase after repeated exposures. In other words, eggs might make me moody on day one, make me nauseous on day two, and kill me on day three. Or, if the stars align just right, they might go ahead and kill me on day one.

My symptoms affected my family life, my friendships, and my education. My mood swings made it difficult to manage relationships, especially within my own family, and the other symptoms made concentrating on classroom lectures or homework all but impossible. Not to mention my frequent absences from school, or the fact that I frequently became ill or uncomfortable after lunch because I had eaten something that had eggs as an ingredient. I eventually quit eating breakfast altogether because I realized that for some reason I always felt lousy in the morning, but again, I thought that was just the way my body worked. Nothing unusual there. Lots of people don't eat breakfast, right?

Then came the day a nurse gave me an antibiotic shot that had been cultured in eggs. I remember her specifically asking if I had any allergies, to which I naturally responded "No." Then she stuck the needle in me and I immediately began shaking violently. I fell over and my body involuntarily curled into a fetal position. My vision went black and I lost consciousness. I woke in a hospital bed a few hours later, half-delirious and completely baffled as to what had happened. The doctor tried to explain it all to me but my brain was so cloudy I may as well have been on drugs. My head was in a fog for the next few days. It took years to finally remember the sequence of events that led to that hospital bed. The attack was so bad, it had given me temporary amnesia.

Since then, I have learned to live without eggs. Believe me, it ain't easy. I rarely eat out because it's difficult to find menu items that don't have eggs as an ingredient and it's a hassle to make the waitress go back and forth checking everything. Here are a few examples: Restaurant pasta usually contains eggs as an ingredient. Bread products and hamburger buns often do, and sometimes even crackers contain eggs. Soup and sauce bases may have them as an additive. Cakes, cookies, and other bakery desserts almost always have them. I found out the hard way that A&W's cheese on their burgers is made with eggs (or was at the time) and Pizza Hut's sauce also contained egg ingredients. And another surprising item that's off my menu: WINE.

It's true. Winemakers use eggs as a fining agent. If the wine doesn't clear satisfactorily, wineries use eggs to remove some of the proteins and force the wine to clear. This is done by mixing the fining agent straight into the wine, where it clings to other proteins and settles to the bottom. The wine can then be bottled and shipped.

After having an allergic reaction quite a few years ago, my wife and I made an exhaustive list of every item I had consumed over the last few days. We then verified that everything was egg-free. The only unconfirmed item was a red wine we'd shared with a friend over dinner. That sent me into research mode, and it didn't take long to confirm my suspicions. I was shocked to learn that wine could indeed have eggs in it.

I contacted several local wineries to verify this process. They all confirmed that they used eggs occasionally, but assured me that no eggs remain in the wine. How they manage that, I don't know. After spending several years researching and learning to make my own wine, I've still not found a sure way to remove eggs from the final product. It doesn't take much imagination to see how an allergen -a tiny protein in eggs, for example- could remain in the finished product. Any filtration that could remove this protein would not only negatively affect the wine, but also render the use of eggs redundant. In other words, if you have a filter good enough to pull egg proteins out of wine, then you don't need eggs at all. Just filter the wine!

I learned that wineries use not only eggs, but also products derived from milk and shellfish. As far as I know, eggs are the only fining agent they use completely unmodified, with all allergens fully intact. I also learned that there had been a movement to label alcoholic beverages with allergens, but wineries lobbied against this labeling on the grounds that it would turn off consumers, and also argued that since no one has died of anaphylaxis after drinking wine, that must mean no one gets sick. Labels are already required in Europe because even tiny particles of allergens present an inherent danger to the highly sensitized. 

Surprisingly, winemakers don't need to use these known allergens. Hypoallergenic fining agents have long been available that are cheap and just as effective. However, these hypoallergenic products aren't traditional fining agents, and therefore some winemakers tend to look down their nose at them. Winemakers also tend to gravitate towards techniques they're familiar with, and eggs are something of a time-honored tradition. Still, it's hard not to conclude that some wineries would prefer to poison some of us rather than using safer alternatives, or simply adding a few words to the back of their label so that we know which wines to avoid. Apparently, this will never happen until people are made aware of the problem so they can begin reporting their reactions to the proper authorities and -yeah, I'll say it- Lawyers. Because when you get down to the nitty-gritty, no big business is going to go to any extra work or expense unless it involves their bottom line.

I've gone a little off-topic here, so I'll get back on point. I may return to the wine issue in a later post, but for now I want to focus on the subtle symptoms of food allergies that you or someone you know may be experiencing. If you suffer any of these, pay attention to the foods you've eaten in the last forty-eight hours. You may be able to draw a parallel, and change your whole life for the better simply by avoiding something in your diet!:

  • Difficulty thinking clearly or concentrating. This can be hard to pin down. Struggling to read or to calculate math problems (that you could do yesterday) may be a sign, for example, or being a whiz at crosswords one day and unable to answer the simplest questions the next.
  • A sudden change in perception with no reasonable explanation, as if the world suddenly became very gloomy (or alternatively, very bright)
  • Unexplained mood swings. Do you start the day in a normal mood and suddenly find yourself depressed, for absolutely no reason? 
  • Unexplained panic attacks. Have you ever been in a perfectly comfortable place (a meal with friends, a restaurant, a picnic perhaps) and suddenly felt an urgent need to get away?
  • Any of the above, possibly accompanied by a tight-chested feeling or a sense of foreboding.
 These are just a few of the symptoms to look for, but if any of these sound familiar, please look deeper. Do some research and start keeping a food diary to help you isolate possible culprits. Ask for help. Sometimes, when you're not thinking clearly, you can't even remember what you ate yesterday, much less keep track of it. It's also a good idea to consult with your doctor and schedule some allergy tests. In fact, if you have any of these symptoms, please see a doctor ASAP. Be wary of attempting to fix any health problem on your own. This is just asking for trouble.

Milk, eggs, shellfish, soy and wheat products are some of the most common allergy culprits in food. You can find a more exhaustive list here, along with more info about food allergies and symptoms.