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Adventurous eating: the greatest health risk of our time?

Associate Director James Osborn muses on one of the biggest health phenomenons of the decade…

I went to a café yesterday. The acute accent is definitely necessary – a barely legible chalkboard held up by an old rope told me the establishment served, I think, smashed chilli avocado on Dead Sea salt and cashew-infused brioche. There’s nothing unusual about these types of places in most UK cities now, of course. I can’t find jacket potato and beans stewed in the 1980s school-dinner-style anywhere. What was unusual, however, was the remarkable exchange that occurred after we placed our orders.

As she turned away, the waitress asked us something strange. Her question wasn’t posed in the rote, off-the-cuff style of, for example, “Would you like any brown sauce?” (If only). It was shot through with genuine disbelief and, I thought, with slight suspicion – as if she’d extensively probed us on the matter already and remained convinced that we were in some way deviant.

“No, no allergies”, I assured her with a slightly bemused smile. She walked off and I began to think. When was the last time she’d served a group of people who didn’t actively proclaim their allergy statuses, to make her feel she actually had to check? Clearly days, possibly weeks. And apparently with good reason.

A study of US health insurance records published last month reveals a whopping 377% rise in overall food allergy claims between 2007 and 2016. Strangely, the data show that tree nut and seed reactions increased by a staggering 603%. Similarly, in the UK, NHS Digital data reveal hospital admissions for anaphylactic shock have gone up a fifth since 2012.

The root cause of this remarkable increase is much debated, but the evidence does imply the incidence jump is mainly unique to western and westernising societies. Of particular fascination are the theories that suggest this is a peculiarly middle class phenomenon. The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ – essentially, continual cleaning of home surfaces – proposes that because the body has become relatively unused to fighting germs, it now thinks certain food proteins are evil.

People are also eating more adventurously. The UK Food Standards Agency suggests that the middle classes are under increasing social pressure to explore diverse cuisine, placing them at particular risk because global pack labelling is often printed in foreign languages.

Whatever the root cause, the race is now on to find a cure for IgE-mediated food allergies – which can be triggered by a wide range of foods, including those pesky tree nuts. Until it’s found, I think we’d better bring back the jacket potato.

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