Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Allergies and the Environment

I'm not sure what it is about allergies; but I find that the farther I delve into them the more aware of our environmental impact I become.
Part of it is the quest for a cause, which may lead to a cure.  Part of it is becoming aware of the way our food chain works, which raises more questions than it seems to answer.  And part of it is simply that the more aware I am of what is IN food, the less I want it in my (or my kids') bodies.  It's not about avoiding allergens.  It's about our safety, and our society's sustainability.
What would we do if suddenly massive truck routes were made impassable?  If we were forced to eat fresh produce and meat without grains?
This happened in parts of Europe during the second world war.  This dangerous diet led to...increased health.  But, during the second world war, we still had memories of how to farm.  We had a little extra space to garden.  We had memories of how to prepare and preserve our own food, or there were plenty of people around who could teach us.
And there were a lot fewer of us to feed.  In an age of microwaves, freezers and take out containers, how many would know how to plan and execute a month's worth of meals if heaven forbid there were no more factory food deliveries?  There's a commercial that we used to laugh at.  "Without us, some guys would starve".
"So true," we joked.
But when we entered the realm of food allergies and started cooking from scratch, we stopped laughing.  With an increased awareness of ingredients, and additives, and the true definition of cooking from scratch, the jingle seemed too hit too close to home.  And all of these realizations led us to an increased awareness of sustainability.  
Allergies themselves are overwhelming, especially when you have a slew of them that require multiple pages to list.  Corn being one of the toughest allergies to live with, since it even shows up in the citric acid rinse on bagged salad.  Sustainability isn't a main concern.
And yet, it is.  Corn is the number one source cited when companies talk about environmentally friendly "green" resources.  But it isn't sustainable.  It isn't a sustainable crop, it requires a lot of gunk to grow industrially, and then it takes a lot of energy and effort to turn cobs into something that doesn't resemble a kernel, an ear or a husk. It's just natural, and sounds more sustainable than petroleum and plastic. 
I now look at food in a new light.  I wonder about the modifications we've put it through the past several decades.  Trying to grow a better variety, something easier or hardier or simply more aesthetically pleasing.  I wonder about the cost of our actions.  The loss of heirloom varieties of plants, the loss of diversity.  I worry about what exactly is coursing through the veins of my children.  I've seen the detrimental effects of food dyes on Bumblebee.  I've seen a playful Penguin double over, pale and sweaty, from a simple snack. 
I hear them complain of random tummy aches or mild headaches, and I wonder what else might be going on.  I look at ingredient lists and ask myself why, exactly, they need BHT or TBHQ.  Xanthan gum might improve the texture, but how much can a body really handle?  And what about all those synthetic vitamins?  Grown en masse in laboratories to try and replace some of the nutrients lost in the soil from our poor farming practices, do our bodies know what to do with them?  And the process itself can't be especially good for the environment.
None of this would ever have been given more than a fleeting thought, I'm certain, if it weren't for the food allergies.  I used to figure that what was in the food wasn't all that bad, I read lists...but not that closely.  Carageenan?  Hypromellose?  tocopherols?  High fructose corn syrup?  They had to come from somewhere.  And the FDA approved them.  That was good enough to consume them in moderation.
And now I wonder.  Not only what they do to us, but what effect do they have on the environment?  What unseen damage can they do?

I note that food isn't the only thing with an ingredient list, and the personal care aisle scares me, too.  Products designed to be washed away into our water supply.  With names like Polyethylene (which, by the way, is bits of plastic designed to help exfoliate.  Bits of plastic and corn derivatives, bound together for eternity and washed into our water supply, where any bacteria and large particles might be cleaned up...but anything minute is likely to remain in tact and be ingested by something else, animal or human.) or ammonium lauryl sulfate (a foaming agent commonly derived from coconut or palm alcohols) what sort of effect do they have on our water supply?  Or the quality of the soil they drain into? 

You see, the awareness of cross contamination, and the inability to sterilize away cornstarch dust or drops of peanut oil, makes me aware that nothing vanishes from our planet.  It may get absorbed, or rearranged, or diluted.  But it doesn't vanish.  The problem may begin, for our family, with allergen containment, but the question of "why" leads us to the bigger picture.  The chemicals and GMO's whose safety I question for my family aren't easily contained. The wind blows, the bees pollinate, and flowers blossom freely.  They don't know where the boundaries between organic and inorganic lay.  And honestly, as a society we don't know the long term effects. 

Most of us don't give it more than a fleeting thought.  I know I never did.  I tried to toss my water bottle into the recycle bin instead of the trash can, I parroted the idea that organic was better but I didn't really deeply care.  Not until the allergies opened my eyes, and I began not only seeing the cause and effect of something as ubiquitous as food but questioning choices I'd never thought to question before. 
While some studies are linking allergies to environmental causes, I'm finding that allergies are lowering our personal environmental impact in a lot of little ways.  Sure, I have to drive farther to get to the grocery store that carries gluten free pasta, but I don't waste time idling in a drive through.  I don't buy many single serve packages, and we gravitate toward environmentally friendly cleaning aids like baking soda and vinegar. 

Truthfully, I don't know if I'm happy to know all I know.  I'd be perfectly happy to still be in the dark regarding the origins of microcrystalline cellulose and astaxanthin.  In fact, I don't think I'd miss being able to spell either one without a cheat sheet.  Awareness breeds responsibility. 
While I can't do as much as I want for the environment, awareness gives me the opportunity to do more than I might have before and allergies give me the motivation.  Maybe someday my grandkids will have a planet to inherit, after all. 

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