Food and Sociality Part II
Last year I wrote a post on Food and Sociality in which I talked about the social and cultural aspects of food and how these encourage us to eat more than perhaps we should. I also expressed an intention to remain “social” despite of some difficulties with certain foods. Has that ever come back to bite me!
What, at the time, seemed like the ill effects of a couple of days of careless eating was actually the start of a rapid increase in allergy and intolerance severity. Consequently, my diet is now quite restricted. I am perfectly healthy, and indeed have a ream of test result to prove same, but my intentions to remain social in my eating habits and not to create a fuss have gone out the window.
It has been a steep learning curve, with much time spent on the internet learning which foods contain what and trying to find reliable articles from medically qualified people that I can actually understand. Here are a few of the things that I have learnt:
- a lot of the ingredients in our food that have been declared ‘safe’ are highly dangerous to many people
- a label that contains the words ‘may contain traces of . . .’ when there is negligible chance of it doing so is a cop out that simply increases frustration when shopping
- some additives don’t have to be labelled unless they are above a certain concentration (and I react at well below that concentration)
- there is a difference between allergens and ‘triggers’ which has something to do with the way that mast cells are formed and activated
- in practical terms, it doesn’t really matter whether it is an allergen or a trigger, as both have to be avoided and can be equally dangerous
- some triggers are environmental and you have no control over them
- people serving in food outlets frequently resent you asking what is in meals prepared on the premises – more frequently they don’t know and cannot understand why you would even be asking
- airlines don’t have a category for me in their ‘meal requests’
- there are a lot of us out there, and our numbers seem to be increasing
- specialists charge more for a ten minute consultation than many of us earn in a whole day
So, far from being relaxed and social in my eating habits, much of my life is now consumed with planning and preparing food. As for not wanting to stand out or create a fuss, I have to take a ‘lunch box’ with me when we go out to socialise and stick only to that. Eating out at restaurants is a thing of the past.
I’m pretty self-confident, and so it doesn’t particularly bother me explaining to people that I have to bring my own food to gatherings. The different reactions are interesting though. Most of my close friends and family just accept it without fuss. However, some people are quite insistent that they have taken me into account and have prepared something that I can eat. Usually I do not like to take the risk as it would probably upset them if something went wrong. Others seem quietly relieved that I bring my own food. Still others seem to regard me as something of a freak, but this is as much for my vegetarianism as for any other restrictions. Notably, I also tend to encounter these people at places where the only food on offer is meat wrapped in bread.
Over the last few years, awareness of allergies has increased, probably as the number of sufferers has also increased. Healthier options (and even a few gluten-free items) are starting to appear in some newer food courts. Our local church now offers gluten free bread at Communion, and the school that my kids attend provides vegetarian sausages at sausages sizzles.
Yet, as a society, we still have a long way to go:
- in providing healthy and safe otpions for more people in ‘fast’ food outlets (sometimes carting your own lunch isn’t an option when you’re out all day or travelling)
- in being aware that it is not inclusive or welcoming when meat in bread is all that is on offer and anyone who doesn’t eat that is considered odd
- in relation to the levels of awareness and concern about what we are putting into our food and environment and the long term effects of these for the population, not just for the immediate health of individuals
- in helping people to make properly informed choices by adequately labelling fresh and prepared foods as well as canned, bottled, and frozen ones, and not putting in ingredients that really don’t need to be there
I don’t expect everywhere to cater for people like me, even if that were possible. But I have long been amazed at how little critical thought most people put into the social and commercial aspects of food when eating together is such a big part of our culture.
If you have an interest in food additives and labelling laws, you might like to check out the review into labelling laws currently being undertaken by the Australian government and the related issues paper.