Your lips are starting to swell. Your throat is closing, and it’s becoming harder and harder to breathe. Imagine the sheer and utter panic you would experience while having an allergic reaction to something you’ve eaten. It doesn’t take much; the smallest molecule in your food can trigger the attack. I’ve watched it happen with my husband after he ate shellfish. Funny thing is it wasn’t always like that for him; he actually ate shellfish all the time as a kid. But for some reason, his body started rejecting it when he was in his twenties. Food allergies are all too common, rising to epidemic levels around the world. Chances are you know somebody who has one, and that’s why the second episode in Netflix’ “Rotten” series is not to be missed.
Shellfish is one of the most common food allergies out there, along with tree nuts, eggs, milk, soy, wheat, fish, and of course, peanuts. One in 13 kids in the United States has a food allergy, and one quarter of them are allergic to peanuts. The documentary begins by introducing us to peanut farmers in Georgia, who are really struggling to stay relevant. Peanuts, after all, have a really bad rap these days. And while I feel for the farmers who are trying to be successful growing a high-risk food, my heart really goes out to the people who have the allergy and worry about almost everything they put into their mouths.
This is where this segment in the “Rotten” series really starts to get interesting, as it investigates how the restaurant business copes with the rising number of food allergies. It’s something I’ve always wondered myself while eating out with my husband; how can I trust that no shellfish has come into contact with the meal he orders? It turns out I can’t. While the episode features some really stand-up American chefs who go above and beyond in their kitchens to accommodate allergies, you also learn just how negligent others can be. In Britain, for example, an Indian restaurant chain was caught serving meals full of peanuts to people despite requests for no nuts. A teenage girl suffered a severe allergic reaction after ordering a curry there but lived to tell her tale to Netflix. A 38-year-old man did not. He ordered what he thought was a nut-free meal from the same chain, took one bite, and died on his bathroom floor.
Sure, it might have been cheaper for the restaurant chain to switch from almond to peanut flour. But the fact that customers were not warned about the changes on the menu is criminal, and authorities in Britain thought so too. The owner of the “Jaipur Spice” chain was put on trial and found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter, and was sentenced to six years in jail. You would hope that this would send a very clear message to restaurant owners around the world, but honestly, if I had a food allergy, that story would make me never want to eat out again.
There are, of course, real costs associated with accommodating food allergies in the restaurant business. Some of the featured chefs in this episode talk about the extra food preparation and labour involved with making sure a certain allergen doesn’t come into contact with a customer’s meal. Worth it when you consider what’s at stake. I figure added safety precautions most definitely result in repeat-visits among people with food allergies, and as long as somebody isn’t losing their lives, the extra cost shouldn’t ever be a factor.
All around the world food allergies are on the rise, but why? I had really hoped that the documentary would fully explain the surge, but it doesn’t. And the reason it doesn’t is because it can’t. As we find out, experts are only just beginning to understand why some of us react badly to certain foods. Genetics come into play, but it’s suspected environmental factors are also to blame. Some of the featured scientists point to genetically modified foods with non-nutrient substances as the culprit. Others suggest we are becoming cleaner, and so parasitic worms that have lived in humans for centuries are disappearing, which creates a sort of imbalance in the microbiome of our bodies. In short, so much more research needs to be done before we can find out why so many of us have food allergies.
There is some good news, though: scientists have had a bit of a breakthrough where “curing” a food allergy is concerned. It actually involves being exposed to the food you’re allergic to in small doses until your body can recognize and tolerate it in larger amounts. Don’t try this at home; this treatment is just in the developmental stages and the ‘guinea pigs’ are being highly monitored by medical professionals. But it was very interesting to hear from young adults who suffered from food allergies as children and can now eat the things that were once so deadly to them. Experts say the results from the trial are really encouraging to people with food allergies, and they hope we’ll see a lot more progress within the next five to ten years. Until then, be extremely cautious. And if you know somebody with a serious food allergy, tell them to watch this “Rotten” episode, You should watch it too because you can never be too aware of the dangers people with allergies face.