Sticks and stones may break my bones, but consuming products made of wheat will give me an intolerable migraine. I used to receive bewildered looks from people, whenever I tried explaining my gluten intolerance. Today when there is much awareness of food allergies, I am very surprised by the attitude towards them in Pakistan. Having an allergy is like having a nakhra; it’s deemed completely unnecessary.
Most people in Pakistan don’t even know that some of the most basic food items – wheat, milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, tree nuts and fish – can actually trigger often deadly allergic reactions. These food substances attack the body’s immune system, which defends against potentially harmful substances, such as bacteria and viruses. According to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, one in 12 children in the United States may have a food allergy, with more than a third of them having severe allergies. Apparently food allergies are becoming more common globally.
Dr Javeria Siddiqi, a house officer at Jinnah Medical College Hospital is allergic to coffee, cheese, cabbage, and tree nuts. “People are not aware of such allergies. I only realised I had food allergies because I had migraines and severe stomach aches when I consumed these items,” she said. Siddiqi is not satisfied with the labelling of food items in Pakistan, intended to inform about the ingredients used in these products. “There are a lot of labelling conflicts, especially regarding the preservatives that are used. Many people are allergic to the chemicals in preservatives. There is also the chance of cross contamination in factories since they do not have separate facilities for allergen-free products.”
Aisha Zubair, a second year medical student who is lactose intolerant, lamented the lack of availability of products tailored for people with allergies. “People think food allergies are all a drama. It is really hard for me to find soy milk products here.” Despite this statement, she is thankful for the abundance of food Pakistan has to offer, which makes up for the few things she cannot eat due to her allergy.
Five-year-old Rayan Hamad faces a similar problem. He is allergic to wheat, eggs, casein and lactose, and has severe problems when he comes to Pakistan for holidays. Originally based in Abu Dhabi, Hamad’s mother goes through a lot of trouble during their summer holidays in Karachi. “It is very difficult to find imported allergen-free products here. I rarely find them in grocery stores. Another problem is that people are not informed about the consequences and seriousness of such allergies,” she said.
However, the trend seems to be changing now. According to Beenish Jamal, a nutritionist at the Islamabad Diagnostic Clinic, awareness about food allergies is growing in the country. “Almost 25 per cent of the people that come to me complain about their food allergies,” she said. “The most common ones that I come across are gluten intolerance.” She pointed out that allergen-free products are now being sold in Pakistan, but most of these products are not widely available in the market and are often expired, since they are imported.
Yet nowadays many big supermarkets, like Agha’s and Ebco in Karachi, are increasingly stocking up well-known brands like Orgran – an organic food company which produces gluten-free, wheat-free, egg-free, dairy-free, soy-free, nut-free and vegan products. Flour mills have also recently taken up the initiative to produce gluten-free flour, but there is still a risk of contamination since they are processed in the same vicinity as that of the wheat flour.
Moreover the trend of healthy eating in Pakistan has resulted in the popularity of organic cafe’s like N’eco’s in Karachi, which offer a number of healthy choices for people who cannot consume certain foods. Considering the increasing awareness about healthy foods, one hopes that in future, there will be a wider variety of products available for people who suffer from food allergies.
with additional input from Reuters
TV characters with food allergies
Meg Griffin of “Family Guy” – Peanuts.
Bart Simpson of “The Simpsons” – Butterscotch
Michael Kelso of “That 70s Show” – Eggs
Ross Geller of “Friends” – Kiwi, lobster and peanuts
Leonard Hofstadter of “The Big Bang Theory” – Lactose
Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2011.