You Have a Friend in Cheeses

Food allergies are serious and must not be made fun of. Even my good self suffers from a, as yet unidentified form of food allergy, which makes my face and eyes swell to gigantic proportions. I first noticed it on Valentine’s Day two years ago when, shortly after enjoying my first (and last) plate of escargots my left eye began itching and after about half an hour it had gotten so swollen I could barely see out of it. Ultimately, we had to leave the restaurant early and after a fistful of antihystamines, a spectacularly unromantic evening ended with me passing out looking like the elephant man.

All of this is intended to demonstrate that I know from personal experience that those with food allergies must be very careful about what they eat lest their reactions prove fatal, or at least kill their chances of a little romance.

However, like many things about food from faddy diets (south beach, atkins etc.) to peculiar man-made ingredients (olestra), people’s ideas about food allergies are often based on poor information and widely-held suspicions.

Lactose-intolerance is a term I’ve heard bandied around for several years now, with increasing frequency, since I first came across it at a former work-place in London. My then-colleague, a waif-like and carbuncular hippy girl called Elisabeth, told me that humans should not drink milk or consume any dairy products because, since we are not cows, the lactose in these products adversely affects our digestive systems.

Her solution to the issue was to eradicate all and any meat, cheese, milk, butter, eggs or anything else that came from an animal (including fish products) from her diet and subsist entirely on grains, fruits, vegetables and pulses/legumes. This, of course, explains her waif-like frame, but it did not persuade me or anyone else in the office to emulate her dietary restrictions.

It did however convince me to look into the issue of dairy-based food issues and though I am by no means an expert, I did discover that real lactose intolerance is a surprisingly rare thing. I was reassured to learn that very few of us are so afflicted with this condition that we cannot drink a daily tall glass of milk without ill effects. I was also pleased to learn that cheese contains no lactose.

You see, lactose is a sugar found in milk, 98% of which is drained off with the whey (cheese is made from the curds) and the other 2% is quickly consumed by lactic-acid bacteria in the act of fermentation.

And while this should not be taken as carte blanche to test the boundaries of dairy ingestion, it is encouraging that while many kinds of allergies are on the rise due to environmental issues, we can still eat cheese, enjoy a glass of milk and an oreo, and have raita on the side next time we visit the local Indian restaurant without fearing for our lives.

P.S. – the interesting cheese and lactose factoid comes straight out of Jeffrey Steingarten’s witty and informative book, The Man Who Ate Everything. We highly recommend it to everyone, but especially those who are fussy eaters.

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