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Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy

In his book “Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy”, Matthew Smith describes how food allergy became a “legitimate” science, and how the relationship between food and health was understood through time.

Written by Genki Hase

How were people dealing with food allergy in the past? At present, we have food labels, allergy tests, and most importantly, a certain degree of common understanding about food allergy. However, the latter is a recent phenomenon. In the 20th century, food allergy was thought to be a junk science with no reproducibility. How then, have we come to our current understanding of food allergy? In “Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy”, Matthew Smith (2015) describes how food allergy became a “legitimate” science, and how the relationship between food and health was understood through time. When we look at the history of a certain concept, we tend to look at it from today’s perspective, but the author traces the history of food allergy from “food allergy before allergy” which is “prior to the emergence of allergy as a medical and cultural phenomenon” (p. 21). By looking at things from the perspective of that time, Smith reveals how medical knowledge, especially controversial medical ideas, have evolved over the course of the 20th century, adapting and conforming to various pressures and contexts (p. 6).

Defining food allergy demands a boundary-work, what Thomas Gierryn (1995) calls a “constructivist” approach, to determine what is “true” food allergy and what makes it legitimate as medical knowledge. Depending on how you want to define food allergy, how you test, diagnose, distinguish, and treat the patients and actors involved in food allergy will vary. The author divided the boundary-workers of a contentious subject, food allergy, into three groups. Orthodox allergists are those who limited the definition of food allergy based on the immunological response. Food allergists implied the broad definition of food allergy based on any allergic reaction. Clinical ecologists looked at food allergy as a “disease of civilization” and claimed that excess food engineering has led to increased allergic response. As Smith mentions, pluralistic interpretation leads to a “complex understanding of food allergy” (p. 124) and its development so that a set of perspectives allows the reader to interpret one event in many ways. For instance, the discovery of immunoglobulin E (IgE) provided an opportunity for orthodox allergists to link immune responses to food allergy by enabling them to develop a measurement to diagnose an allergy, as well as limit the extent of the allergy. As such, by invoking the authority of science, food allergists and clinical ecologists were prevented from gaining legitimacy. Yet despite the rising social position of orthodox allergists, the attempt to develop tests based on IgE had failed; thus, the impact of IgE theory was also limited. Classifying the boundary-workers may help us to understand the “manifest” and “latent”* functions of laboratory work, clinical practice, and abundance of discourses in order to know the transformation of the notion of food allergy. 

While most of the book tries to take a multifaceted approach to test methods and new discoveries with each perspective and position in mind, when it comes to the inflection point of food allergy, the emergence of highly lethal peanut allergy, there is very little description from the perspective of food allergists and clinical ecologists since they were extremely marginalized by then. Despite that fact, the book does present a step-by-step explanation of how peanut allergies became a public problem and changed people’s perceptions of food and health. Therefore, it is fair to say that this book demonstrates the process and the intention behind the process that led to the current form of food allergy, presenting one of the examples of a knowledge obtaining “legitimacy” in the area of science.

*American sociologist Robert Merton has described society in terms of its own functions as a system by proposing two functions, the “manifest” and “latent” functions. The former function refers to the deliberate and conscious, and the latter refers to unintended and unconscious.

This book review is originally written as an assignment for the course DCUL 337: History of Science, offered by Dr. Takeshi Uesugi

References:

Gieryn, T. (1995). Boundaries of science. In S. Jasanoff, G. E. Markle, & J. C. Petersen Handbook of science and technology studies, revised edition (pp. 393-443). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412990127.n18

Smith, M. (2015). Another person’s poison: A history of food allergy. Columbia University Press.

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