Kerala's seafood lovers are plagued by the riddle of deaths reportedly caused when lime juice and prawns were eaten together. On one hand, prawns are a much relished delicacy in almost all parts of Kerala. Being a seafood-consuming population, thanks to the long coastline of the state, we have our signature prawn dishes that have a pride of place among the best of Kerala cuisine. 'Karikkadi' is a prawn variety that is abundantly available along the Kerala coasts during 'chakara'. If prawns have always been part of our diet, why has it suddenly turned lethal?
So, is the combination of lime and prawns the real culprit? Well, lime is the standard seasoning for almost any prawn preparation all over the world. It has never been any different in Kerala too. The truth is that shellfish allergy is recognized as one of the most common food allergies in the world. Ingesting even small amounts of the foods you are allergic to can cause mild to severe reactions in people.
Some forms of allergic reactions like anaphylaxis can be life-threatening. It can start with symptoms like nausea, rashes and difficulty in breathing within minutes after the allergic food has been ingested. It can cause the person to go into shock; the blood pressure drops suddenly and the airways are narrowed, blocking breathing. Death occurs within minutes in worst cases. Eating prawns can become the cause of death in people with shellfish allergy. In all possibility, the people who died after consuming prawns suffered from shellfish allergy which was never identified. Lime juice or any other food eaten along with prawns has little to with the allergic reaction.
Allergy vs Intolerence
Food allergy and food intolerance can sound a lot similar. Many people suffer from sensitivity to foods; lactose intolerance is one such common condition. Food intolerance is caused by the lack of enzymes in the body to digest certain foods. Allergy, on the other hand, is an abnormal reaction of the immune system to certain foods. While food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and limited to digestive problems, food allergies can cause serious or even life-threatening reactions.
While most people with intolerance can manage to eat small amounts of the foods, allergic reactions can be triggered by eating microscopic amounts, or even touching or inhaling the food. Digestive problems caused by food intolerance usually set in anywhere between 3- 72 hours after consuming the food. Food allergies manifest almost immediately and can worsen very quickly.
Some of the most common forms of food allergy are caused by shellfish, eggs, milk and dairy products, soy and wheat. Nut allergy is among the most dangerous food allergies affecting people all over the world. Nut and peanut allergy can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. Drug allergies are also common and should be reported to your doctor at the earliest. Medicines should be discontinued immediately if an allergic reaction occurs.
Colour coded chopping boards to tackle allergens
In professional kitchens the world over, guidelines on food safety has made it mandatory to use colour-coded chopping boards. The system helps to avoid cross-contamination from food groups that are potential allergens.
A major addition in recent times to the list of common food allergies has been gluten-intolerence/allergy. It is characterized by an adverse reaction to gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. As a result, chopping boards in purple colour have been introduced to the original set of colour-coded boards to prevent gluten contamination.
In the west, guests brief restaurants on potential allergens that affect them. They also keep a list of medicines handy. This makes restaurants legally answerable if an allergic reaction occurs from the food they serve. It is also mandatory for restaurants to mark out potential allergens among the ingredients used in their recipes. For instance, if nut oils are used in the preparation of a fried dish or as seasoning, it has to be clearly mentioned since nut allergy is one of the most dangerous food allergies.
Should we avoid milk and dairy products?
People with lactose intolerance are unable to fully digest lactose, a kind of sugar found in milk and dairy products. Within a few hours of consuming these products, they will notice symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhoea, and abdominal cramps. Since it is a condition caused by the deficiency of an enzyme in the body called lactase, lactose intolerance is not classified as allergy. Although lactase supplements can help manage the condition, it helps to avoid dairy products. Some people may be able to handle small amounts of milk and milk products while others may have to cut them out completely.
Milk allergy is different from lactose intolerance and is an abnormal reaction of the immune system to milk and foods containing milk. Cow’s milk is the most common allergen although the milk from other mammals like buffalo, goat etc can also cause allergic reaction. While most people with lactose intolerance can handle small amounts of dairy products, it can set of mild to severe reactions in people with milk allergy. They will have to cut out dairy products from their diet completely to stay safe.
The first time may not be severe, but an allergic reaction is a red flag.
Almost everyone experiences a food allergy at least once in their life. While this is not a reason to go into panic mode, it is best to get an allergy test done. The first time a person with food allergy is exposed to an allergen, the reaction may not be severe. But, if symptoms like rashes, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, excessive gas, vomiting, tightness in the throat, difficulty swallowing and breathing etc occur, it can be confirmed that you are experiencing an allergic reaction to some kind of food.
The most severe allergic reaction – anaphylaxis – can be life threatening. It can set in only minutes after the person has been exposed to the trigger food. Allergies to drugs, animals, latex, clothing etc are as common as food allergy. Kerala, where seafood is a major part of the diet, is often shocked by reports of deaths caused by the consumption of prawns. The one aspect we overlook is the possibility of shellfish allergy being more common than we imagine.
Keep a tab on the diet of children to avoid food allergies
Parents must keep an eye on the diet of young children to detect allergies early on. Before giving seafood for the first time, it is advisable to get an allergy test done. Most people outgrow food allergies by the age of 12. It is better to introduce them to all kinds of food in childhood, which reduces the risk of developing allergies later on.
If a food allergy has been identified, it is important to make your child aware of it too. If the child does not know about the allergy and the foods to be avoided, he/she might end up eating them while sharing food with friends at school.
Many foods meant for children have nuts as an ingredient. Children with nut allergy are at a major risk while sharing food. Crisps and mixture with nuts in it, foods that are fried or seasoned using nut oils etc can set off allergic reactions.
In the case of very young children, parents need to watch the diet to avoid allergic reactions. The only way out is to identify the allergy-causing foods and avoid them at all costs.