Food Culture + Me. It's Complicated.
Or, how the changing landscape of food culture affects how I manage my allergies
There is a ton of advice on the internet about how to manage your food allergies, and it is so valuable. But it's also important to acknowledge that how you manage your allergies is susceptible to the flux of current food culture and its impact on what the people are eating. This of course varies over space and time but trends, whether we partake or not, affect the availability of products, the introduction of new ingredients, and often cause rise in uncertainty of how to keep oneself safe.
This article is not intended to criticize or demonize diets or lifestyles, it's an analysis of how they play a role in the management of food allergies and the personal procurement of "safe" foods. As any allergic person knows, self-education and awareness are the keys to preventing a reaction.
Atkins, South Beach, and other yo-yo diet fads
Let's start out in the late 90's/early 2000's, the height of my childhood. When I think of this period I immediately think of mass commercial diets overtaking how North Americans ate. It seemed like every week on 20/20 and 60 Minutes there was an analysis of another fad diet and whether it was healthy or heart-attack inducing. One thing was for sure, people were eating a ton of red meat and salmon, and they were probably a little confused.
I would say that suburban Canadian food culture was less diverse than it is now. We didn't have food truck culture, Instagram foodies, a plethora of flatlays and foodstagrams. Our food was just a bit more basic back then, especially in Markham where I grew up. We had a couple plazas and they had Swiss Chalet and Jack Astor's so I was used to eating lots of fries and roast chicken. Peanut allergy was becoming more popular but many were still unfamiliar with it. I honestly think my dairy allergy was so unusual and unheard of that servers were just frightened by it and took great caution; they didn't want to risk harming the very hungry young girl. However there were also a lot less dairy substitutes out there because why would you need a dairy alternative when 99.9% of people drank the real thing? This was a bit of a challenge for me, obviously. No Enjoy Life Foods or Earth Balance (how did I survive?), but we did have Rice Dream! And thank god for that.
We can all thank Wheat Belly and Grain Brain for causing food culture to make a huge shift towards gluten-free eating. Formerly the gluten-free diet was reserved for people with wheat allergy, Celiac disease, or a proven intolerance. All of these are medical conditions that should be taken seriously. But then there were millions of others who went gluten-free by choice. Food companies began responding with the creation of gluten-free products, especially baked goods, pastas, and flours. Peas, almonds, and other legumes became choice flour blends for their superior texture over rice or potato flour.
I appreciate that these books and the rise of this diet made society more aware of GMO's and the quality of our food. It also made GF products more accessible for people with celiac disease. However I found that I was suddenly having trouble managing my allergy to legumes as they were popping up everywhere. Things that previously had been made with wheat flour suddenly contained ingredients I'm highly allergic to. When I informed others about my allergies (dairy, nuts, peanuts, and legumes) I very often got the response (and still do), Oh don't worry it's gluten-free. Everyone had grain on the brain and I was suddenly very aware of the increased prevalence of legume and nut-based flours.
Veganism and The Year of the pulse
These last couple years I've noticed a rise in the use of legumes in cooking and in packaged foods. A few years ago Earth Balance and So Delicious began using pea protein in their vegan butter and yogurts, respectively. Products that I had bought for years became off-limits to me. And then as though they were rubbing my face in it (ok, I know they weren't actually) the UN declared 2016 "the year of the pulses". And I remember thinking - please please don't let lentils become the new quinoa. Just let quinoa continue being quinoa; it has some protein and cooks in under 20 minutes, so let's not change a pretty ok thing.
I also became a pseudo veganism supporter. I say "pseudo" because on the one hand I truly support people who have plant-based diets. It's great for the environment and has many health benefits. And with how popular it's become there are a ton of fantastic recipes out there (check out my favorite, @BowlBar). But on the other hand I'm not actually able to live it myself. Legumes, nuts, and seeds are the best sources of vegan protein but I'm severely allergic to nearly all of them. I can have some beans - black, kidney, and romano, as well as seeds (when i can find ones without a may-contain warning) but this is not enough to sustain a full lifestyle. Vegan cheese seems to throw people for a loop, since Daiya is so popular among vegans and the dairy-allergic, but of course I can't have that either as it's made from legumes.
One of the benefits that I reap from the growing veganism movement is that now there are so many dairy-free products available! Vegan butter (Earth Balance), Yogurt (I buy Yoso), chocolate (Giddy Yoyo and Enjoy Life), and so much more. Even vegan whipped cream made from coconut milk, which you really must try. Actually, the vegans have managed to make better, healthier versions of everything using coconut milk so for that I am truly thankful. Their popularity just makes them more accessible, which of course benefits allergic people everywhere.
This has been a bit of a long post so I'll just say: Here's to hoping 2017 will be the year of the greens - at least Pantone has set a good precedent.