Another Person's Poison: A History of Food Allergy
By Matthew Smith
Published by Columbia University Press (2 June 2015)
To some, food allergies seem like fabricated cries for attention. For others, they pose a dangerous health threat. Food allergies are bound up with so many personal and ideological concerns that it is difficult to determine what is medical and what is myth. This book parses the political, economic, cultural, and genuine health factors of a phenomenon that now dominates our interactions with others and our understanding of ourselves. Surveying the history of food allergy from ancient times to the present, Another Person's Poison also gives readers a clear grasp of new medical findings on allergies and what they say about our environment, our immune system, and the nature of the food we consume.
For most of the twentieth century, food allergies were considered a fad or junk science. While many physicians and clinicians argue that certain foods could cause a range of chronic problems, from asthma and eczema to migraines and hyperactivity, others believed that allergies were psychosomatic. Another Person's Poison traces the trajectory of this debate and its effect on public-health policy and the production, manufacture, and consumption of food. Are rising allergy rates purely the result of effective lobbying and a booming industry built on self-diagnosis and expensive remedies? Or should physicians become more flexible in their approach to food allergies and more careful in their diagnoses? Exploring the issue from scientific, political, economic, social and patient-centered perspectives, this book is the first to engage fully with the history of what is now a major modern affliction, illuminating society's troubled relationship with food, disease and the creation of medical knowledge.
I wanted to review this book from three perspectives: firstly, as a health journalist who writes articles for pharmacists and consumers about allergies; secondly, as the author of a consumer book on children's allergies; thirdly, as the mother of a child with nut allergy.
Another Person's Poison is essentially a historical textbook, examining the history of food allergies using medical writing, literature, case studies, research studies and anecdotal evidence. It covers attitudes towards food allergies and their place in society, as well as controversies surrounding the research into a range of allergy topics (e.g. the links between food allergies and migraine, asthma, eczema and behaviour).
The book is well researched and well written. But it was not necessarily what I was expecting. From the description, I expected more coverage of why allergies are on the increase in modern society.
I found chapter six the most interesting. This chapter looked mainly at the consumption of peanuts in society and the resulting rise in peanut allergy and anaphylactic reactions, using case studies, research references and media reports. There was also a mention of whether peanut allergy should be considered to be a public health concern and the development of nut-free zones in schools. However, theories about the rise in peanut allergy cases over the last few decades were only touched upon very briefly.
In his conclusion, Matthew Smith writes that his book 'does not attempt to resolve the debates about food allergy or, even more foolishly, explain why allergies to foods such as peanuts are on the increase.' As a historian, he says that this is not what he is trained to do. However, I did feel that this is a bit of a cop out, as the hypotheses over why allergies are on the rise are a significantly important part of food allergy history.
If you are looking for an in-depth look at doctors' diagnoses and viewpoints of food allergies through the centuries, then this is the book for you. But if you are looking for a book that explores why food allergies have become more common, you will need to look elsewhere.
I received an Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review