The curious world of food intolerance

So, here I am, 55 and a long way from vowing never to eat another tomato (and a long way from the last post on this blog). It isn’t just tomatoes, and it appears a lot more is causing my eczema than I thought.

One thing I did sort out was talking to my mother about foods she had craved when she was pregnant with me. They turned out to be tomatoes and oranges. So since 2008 I have broadened what I eliminate from or reduce in my diet and worked out what the following foods do.

Nightshades – tomatoes, peppers, chillis, aubergines and potatoes. All members of this plant family cause, within three to four days of eating, small red spots to appear under the surface of my skin at extremities – fingers and feet, particular just above the ankles. These reach the surface causing broken skin and lots of flakiness. The condition is eased by topical steroids, now right up to Dermovate in strength – it’s the weapon of last resort – in order to have any effect. Tomato and potato plants, by the way, make me itch if I touch them. Peeling a potato is a task that now requires gloves, although it never used to be. With corn starch being expensive, I have to watch ingredients for thickening agents and stock cubes, as potato starch is used as a cheaper substitute.

Citrus – lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit and so on. All cause my palms to split, quite painfully with deep fissures, and flake. Nothing seems to help this except not eating citrus. Citric acid gets shoved into all sorts of drinks and appears to be the culprit. I had a bad post-Ribena episode.

Dairy – milk, cheese and so on, whether cow, goat or sheep. Causes my palms to flake and crack, and digestive problems (wind and internal discomfort). I’ve always hated milk, to the point of vomiting, but loved cheese. Lactose-free milk or cheese makes no difference. Bio yoghurt, however, is survivable but I hate the smell – I’ve moved to soya yoghurts.

Onions. The most recent discovery – they cause terrible digestive problems (wind) but don’t appear to have any effect on my skin. I’ve just had an onion-free week and feel much better for it. Was worried about IBS up to this week, but this experiment has eased my mind considerably. I have to explore whether leeks and garlic have a similar effect. I explored this because despite cutting out dairy, digestive issues were getting worse.

I will say that these are intolerances, not allergies. I can eat any of the above without causing alarm except, the sure knowledge, that three to four days later they will have an effect (dairy and onions have a more immediate digestive effect, i.e. within 24 hours). Some foods, such as citrus, take several days of eating to have their effect, so I can risk, for example, a little mixed peel in cake, or lemon juice on fish, provided that I don’t do it repeatedly over a short period. I can risk a pizza, particularly a cheese-free one, once in a while; using a substitute for tomato sauce based on butternut squash, I can enjoy them more often.

I also make sure that if I eliminate anything from my diet as an experiment that I am sure to be responsible and take in the equivalent vitamins and minerals from other food. No one wants scurvy from lack of vitamin C, or brittle bones because of lack of calcium. So, to eliminate milk, for example, I use soya milk or coconut milk that has been fortified with calcium and such – not organic soya, which simply hasn’t got the replacement nutrients (I use Alpro, which isn’t GMO – cheap, fortified soya is usually GMO). I don’t use or cook with nut products (such as nut milks) because my wife is severely allergic to them.

Being careful with the above has greatly reduced my use of topical steroids: a tube of Dermovate typically now lasts 10 weeks instead of four and is used for firefighting outbreaks, not as a matter of routine, when I have been stupid about my diet. Emollient is now usually enough.

More experimentation, and some substitute recipes to follow.


Tomato-free for one month

Since the realization after the IW Festival that tomatoes are probably doing me no good, I haven’t touched them. It has been hard, as tomato-based sauces feature highly in my preferred Italian and Indian recipes, but the results have been striking. The cracked skin on my palms has healed over, and while still not soft and lovely (eczematic skin never seems to heal neatly), it’s so much better than it was a month ago that I really feel quite chipper. I still owe my relief to Glaxo for producing Betnovate and to Steifel for Oilatum Cream, but I have hopes that I can cut down on the former, because it’s the steroid that one step away from the ultimate and final step of Dermovate (there is nothing stronger).

So how have I coped food-wise? Well pesto (I make it without parmesan) or roasted peppers have taken the place of tomatoes as a base sauce for pasta or pizzas. I’m still suspicious of peppers, but excluding them would mean abandoning the fiery sensation of chilli for ever. As this year I’m growing my own habanero, jalapeno and Scotch bonnet chillis, an allergy to peppers would make my greenhouse redundant. And while I can go tomato-free and dairy-free, chilli-free might be a step too far.

“She who is worshipped” bought home lamb mince, hoping for the delicate minced lamb curry that we like so much. I turned it into sheek kebabs, flavoured with ginger, green garlic, fresh and ground coriander and cumin, and cooked on a steel skewer over a barbecue. No tomatoes were harmed in the making of this dish.

I still have to work round other dishes. A tomato-free and dairy-free lasagne may be a challenge, but I’m looking forward to it. And I suspect Chinese and Thai dishes may start to predominate in the kitchen – but that will be no loss.

I Will Not Ever Never Eat A Tomato

I suffer from eczema and have done so from birth. It has never been that bad except as a baby, and from youth to the late 40s has been a patchy condition that affects different parts of me seemingly at random. I have never been able to identify the cause, and as a result have been on various, increasingly potent steroidal creams for as long as I can remember.

Despite the misery eczema causes, I always thought myself lucky. Schoolfriend Simon Longprice, with whom I fondly remember playing rudimentary board wargames such as Tri-tactics and Dover Patrol, was covered in eczema, and his daily life must have been dire. Unfortunately, as a child who moved around depending on my father’s job, I lost contact with Simon long ago; I sincerely hope he has done better than me in coping with this skin condition.

The root of my eczema has to be an allergy, and I’ve spent a good many years trying to identify potential sources. In the process I’ve discovered an intolerance of dairy produce, and a switch to a largely non-dairy diet has helped in some ways – but not with the eczema. I love cheese, but cutting it out and switching to soya milk has stopped then outbreak of spots that continued well past adolescence, and the unwelcome farting that I always associated with Indian food and lentils, but seems more linked to yoghurt as a cooking sauce. Funnily enough, I can eat cheese as long as it is cooked in a fondue; somehow heat and wine must break down whatever it is in cheese that makes it indigestible. Unfortunately, drinking wine and eating uncooked cheese does not work.

The IW Festival this year put me on another trail for food allergies. My hands actually got better after the festival and during the following week. Looking back at what I ate, I realized the one vegetable I didn’t eat in anything like my usual quantities was tomato – there must have been one slice in one of the burgers, and that’s it. I’d also avoided orange juice, because I’d been on more exotic smoothies instead for the weekend’s healthy fruit intake.

I had a word with my mum. I talk pretty well every week to keep in touch, making up for years of not being in touch other than to say I was coming home from digs with my laundry. I asked if she’d had any cravings while pregnant, and the answer was sort of what I’d expected: tomatoes and oranges. A doctor friend with a nut allergy had a mother who ate nuts excessively during pregnancy, and it made me wonder whether there is any connection with allergies and pre-natal diet. No doubt some scientific study has already looked into this.

So since the festival I’ve been avoiding tomatoes and oranges. There has been an improvement, and the eczema is becoming manageable with just emollients. This isn’t proof, as I may have overlooked something else that changed, but what I have to do is work out whether any other member of the family Solanaceae – which includes the potato, capsicums and the aubergine – is also responsible. So far the potato seems innocent as this year’s crop of new potatoes in the garden has as usual proved delicious and seems to have had no ill effects.

My long-suffering friends, however, will probably despair of me. My favourite salad – tomato and mozzarella – is doubly out of my diet. And it looks bleak for spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and pizza. Though I have been experimenting with pizza substitutes using a thin covering of pesto as a base sauce with some success.

The thought of linking pre-natal diet with childhood dietary problems comes during the same week that scientists have discovered, in a study on rats, that mothers who eat junk food pass on a preference for junk food and a tendency to obesity in their young. They naturally pointed to the need to eat fruit and vegetables to counter this tendency: what they should have advised was to eat a balanced diet to avoid an imbalance of any one foodstuff – not necessarily junk food – affecting the next generation.