Eight foods account for over 90% of food allergies in the United States.
There are four types of allergic hypersensitivity, unhelpfully called Type I through Type IV. When we think of ‘allergies’, we generally think of Type I reactions, which involve mast cells and result in symptoms like asthma, hives, and anaphylaxis. Indeed, type I allergies are the subject of this article.
(Note that immunoglobulins will only bond to proteins under normal circumstances. This is why allergies to fruit or vegetables are rare, and why most allergies are to foods high in protein.)
Until recently, the medical community basically refused to acknowledge the other three types of hypersensitivity, despite their presence in every undergraduate microbiology textbook. (If you’ve ever had poison oak or poison ivy, you’ve had a Type IV reaction.) Fortunately, this is slowly changing, and IgG-mediated Type III hypersensitivity is slowly being accepted and tests developed.
You can read this page from the microbiology textbook “Through The Microscope” for a detailed breakdown of all four types of allergic hypersensititivy.
On a hunch, I decided to find out when each of these eight foods was first eaten by humans.
- Dairy – First unequivocal evidence for consumption c. 7000 years ago in Europe, although since it’s associated with modern pastoralists like the Maasai, it may be somewhat older.
- Soy – First domesticated in China c. 5000 years ago, first grown outside southeast Asia c. 2000 years ago. First grown in Europe and America in the 18th century.
- Gluten (wheat and related grains) – Grains were first domesticated in the Middle East, c. 12000 years ago…but agriculture didn’t spread beyond the Middle East until c. 5000 years ago.
- Peanut – First domesticated c. 7600 years ago in Peru. Confined to South and Central America until the 16th century, when European traders spread them around the world. (Note that the peanut is actually a legume, like the soybean.)
- Shellfish – c. 160,000 years ago, South Africa. (Link.)
- Fish – c. 160,000 years ago, South Africa. (Ibid.)
- Tree nut – All common tree nut allergies are, without exception, to trees not native to Africa (walnuts, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts), and modern humans didn’t leave Africa until c. 60,000 years ago. Allergies to native African nuts, such as kola nuts (found in Coca-Cola), and palm nuts (from which palm oil is made), are rare.
- Egg – Always prized, but rarely available until domestication of fowl c. 9500 years ago in Asia. Domestic egg production arrived in Egypt c. 3500 years ago, and Greece c. 2800 years ago.
Here’s a fact you can annoy your friends with: of the commonly eaten ‘nuts’, only chestnuts, hazelnuts, and filberts are true botanical nuts. Like ‘vegetable’, ‘nut’ is a culinary term in common usage.
Next we look at intolerance. Food intolerance is much more prevalent than food allergy, and stem either from an inability to digest or an immune reaction in the gut. Here are the two most common—and they’re both already on the list!
- Dairy (lactose intolerance) – While approximately 5% of Europeans are lactose intolerant, the figure rises to 75% for Africans and 100% for Native Americans. (Link.) (Note, however, that butter, being essentially pure butterfat with minor impurities, is well-tolerated by everyone without frank allergy.)
- Gluten – known as celiac disease in its severest forms. Prevalence of anti-gluten/anti-gliadin antibodies is approximately 1% in the USA, and substantially higher for relatives of sufferers. (Note that wheat most likely has adverse health effects for everyone, not just the frankly celiac. More references here.)
Conclusion: Neolithic Foods Are The Most Allergenic
In general, the more recently a food was added to the human diet, the more likely it is that we will be allergic to it or intolerant of it. The most common adult allergies and intolerances are to dairy, gluten grains, and legumes like peanuts and soy: Neolithic foods that we’ve only eaten for a few thousand years. Non-African tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are Middle Paleolithic, but still a relatively recent addition (proto-humans split from chimps and bonobos 6-7 million years ago.) The only exception is eggs, and egg allergy almost exclusively affects children—most of whom outgrow it by age seven.
More importantly: what foods aren’t on the list?
Meat, vegetables, root starches, and fruits.
We know that vegetables and fruits have essentially no protein, and are therefore unlikely to trigger allergies. Root starches are very low in protein. But meat isn’t just full of protein: meat is protein! (And fat.)
So why isn’t meat on the list?
Because that’s what humans are supposed to eat!
How many people do you know who are allergic to red meat? Most likely zero. That’s because red meat has been a major component of the human diet since long before we were human: even chimpanzees, from which we diverged 6-7 million years ago, hunt, kill, and eat colobus monkeys! Any human who had an allergy to red meat was selected out of the gene pool long ago.
“I estimate that in some years, the 45 chimpanzees of the main study community at Gombe kill and consume more than 1500 pounds of prey animals of all species.” [That's over 33 pounds of meat per year, per chimp. And if you have a strong stomach, you can watch this video of chimps hunting and eating a colobus monkey.]
“When we ask the question “when did meat become an important part of the human diet ?,” we must therefore look well before the evolutionary split between apes and humans in our own family tree.” -The Predatory Behavior and Ecology of Wild Chimpanzees, Dr. Craig B. Stanford, Department of Anthropology, USC
And that’s why grass-fed red meat forms the backbone of a paleo diet.
Live in freedom, live in beauty.
Am I informing you, enraging you, or making you laugh? Got a question? Talk to me! Leave a comment.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy “How Glaciers Might Have Made Us Human” and “That’s Not Food! Reflections on Restaurant Eating”. If you’re interested in the paleo diet but aren’t sure what it’s about, try my motivational guide “Eat Like A Predator”. And if you’ve read several articles and are still here, odds are good you’ll also enjoy my novel The Gnoll Credo.