The Interwebs are currently buzzing with the news that Alpro Soya are now printing warnings of potential hazelnut and almond contamination in their soya products as they are altering sites for production of their dairy free alternative milks. Understandably, there is an outcry as many who avoid dairy products choose soya as their dairy substitute and are also allergic to nuts. Alpro responded to concerns on the Allergy UK website. Certainly their measures sound as stringent as anything any parent of an allergic child can achieve by any other means but there are always those who will be affected. This is a production choice Alpro have made and they may indeed lose customers because of it. However, I sincerely believe the bigger issue is being ignored here.
In an increasingly allergic world there are as many combinations of allergies in individuals as there are allergic people. And any reliance on only one substitute can precipitate issues including new allergic responses. The reliance of the dairy free industry on soya is not a long term option, far too many people have IgE and non IgE responses to Soya - and it is one of the "Big Four" to avoid according to many health professionals. Certainly Gt Ormond Street Hospital advise going "MEWS free" as an important first step when embarking on exclusion diets. (MEWS = Milk, egg, wheat and soy)
Undoubtedly Allergic Disease is almost epidemic at present with the UK topping the world table of incidence of allergic disease. More about that here, information learned when I attended the All Party Group for Allergy at Westminster this Autumn. We should not be complacent in our careful replacement of major allergens from our own or (especially not) from our children's diets. Fortification of alternatives (e.g. calcium and Vitamin D in milk alternatives) is essential, as is careful pricing of worthwhile products, support for new producers and accurate information for consumers. The fact that yet another producer appears to have caved to the litigation-prevention soft option is not good news. It seems a massive fob-off for those shopping for exclusion diets - avoiding the issue of careful checking and stringent manufacturing processes. Or does it?
Alpro are printing these warnings of potential Almond and Hazlenut contamination because they are producing alternative milks on the premises. These are tree nuts, NOT ground nuts, and whilst obviously many may be allergic to them it is not quite the same as peanut allergy. Many who have a severe peanut allergy run the risk of developing an allergy to tree nuts - BECAUSE THEY ARE ALLERGIC PHENOTYPES. i.e. they are more prone to allergies full stop. The bigger issue is cross contamination, and the common ignorance amongst those in the food industry between tree nuts and ground nuts.
Alpro are actually merely covering themselves which sadly is inevitable in our increasingly litigious society - and precisely because there is indeed an epidemic of Allergic Disease in the UK at present. The advice we and many other families have received from top paediatric allergists and hospitals such as Gt Ormond Street is that these warnings can often be safely ignored, it's the main ingredients which are important. **
Including soya in foods is sadly becoming commonplace, soya has been over-produced and is now one of the world's main crops. It's over marketed and soya oil (lecithin) has in fact filled the gap left which Arachis Oil (peanut oil) and others left behind. Arachis oil was withdrawn because it was blamed for the huge rise in the incidence of peanut allergy and it's not impossible that the same will happen with Soya.
Soya Lecithin is a highly purified oil, a universal emulsifier and preservative and because it contains no food protein it is fine for all but an unfortunate minority of sufferers. Sunflower lecithin works as well, but soya is the emulsifier of choice for the majority of the food industry. To produce the oil however, you need to grow the beans.... and find a market for them. Soybean protein is widely used in thousands of processed foods throughout the industrialized world and is a staple in Asia but the West is increasingly dependent on it. Soya is used in food and animal feed but also as industrial precursors.
Soya is low in cholesterol and saturated fats and its health benefits have been widely advertised. Around 20% of soya is genetically modified now in America. It may well be in the future that allergenic properties can be genetically engineered out of Soya and other crops, but equally there is concern that altered proteins might prove to be more allergic. There is a good discussion of that here.
Soya and Infant Formula
In the past one use of soybeans was the highly popular off-the-shelf (it was then!) alternative infant formula - Wysoy. Remember the cute rabbit on the green capped tins? My eldest was on it since it definitely improved his reflux. Until he became intolerant to the soya as well..... because that is one of the issues. There is a high crossover between those allergic (be it IgE or non IgE response) to dairy protein and those allergic to soya. I've heard stats between 45%-75% and as with any potential allergen, increased exposure raises the chances of developing a reaction. (explained here) But soya was popular because cows' milk proteins (casein and whey) are present in all animal milks albeit in varying ratios so alternative animal milks are inappropriate substitutes despite many alternative practitioners pushing the Goat's Milk formula, "Nanny"!
[There is information on Milk Protein Allergy available here. ]
Another concern with a high soya intake, which prompted the WHO to advise against soya formula for infants is related to the content of photo oestrogen's, approximately 6-11 times the equivalent intake of an adult. Obviously formula is the main part of a non breast fed infant's diet so this is clearly going to be the case.There is a good discussion of this here but perhaps the less well publicised concern is reduced thyroid function - particularly in those with borderline iodine levels. Certainly there was sufficient reason to promote hydrolysed formula over soya by the World Health Organisation and this is echoed in individual countries. The international report on photo oestrogens is available to download here.
Other potential problems with increased soya intake
There have been other concerns over soya - that proteins in soya beans can act as enzyme inhibitors for example. These "antinutrients" block the action of trypsin and other enzymes needed for protein digestion. Trypsin inhibitors are large, tightly folded proteins that are only deactivated after a considerable period of heat treatment. This process removes most—but not all—of the trypsin inhibitors, but has the unfortunate side effect of over-denaturing the other proteins in soya, particularly lysine, rendering them difficult to digest and possibly toxic if you believe the scare stories on the internet. Certainly manufacturers are aware of the issue of trypsin inhibitors and have apparently spent money trying to resolve the issue.
The REAL Issue!
There have been links to zinc deficiency also - but my main concern is that soya is a primary allergen, that many who cannot tolerate dairy cannot tolerate soya either, and that increasing the soya content in your diet increases the risk of precipitating a soya allergy. "Food allergies result from the exposure of predisposed individuals to an allergen and, once sensitized, further exposure can result in escalating adverse responses. " So when excluding a food you ideally need to avoid swapping wholesale for one alternative. Variety - as far as possible - is vital. So you could argue that Alpro are meeting this concern by extending their range of alternative milks and promoting the chance to increase variety in a dairy free diet. It certainly helps as many people as it hinders in offering a better choice of dairy free alternatives.
The biggest problem with restricting diets by exclusion is that they become narrow and limited. I therefore applaud Alpro's production of new dairy alternatives and see these new warnings as mostly a "backside covering" measure, and as such they should surely only be taken seriously ** by those with SEVERE IgE ALLERGIES TO HAZLENUT AND ALMOND. ** (No peanuts will be present in either plant). Those with non IgE allergies are highly unlikely to be able to tolerate soya in any case. For that group the non-soya Alpro alternatives offer a real substitute, manufactured by a reputable company which takes fortification of alternatives seriously. Separate plants for separate products are not always possible, a doubling in price (or more) to pay for this would be equally unpopular.
I am therefore not particularly concerned about the change in labelling from an allergy point of view, but from a consumer perspective it is further evidence of our descent into avoiding potential issues by citing disclaimers, by preventative action which puts the producer, rather than the consumer first - and that can never be a good thing. The less influence the consumer has the less control we have over our food, its composition and manufacture.
** NONE OF THE ABOVE CONSTITUTES MEDICAL OR PROFESSIONAL ADVICE. ALLERGIES ARE A SERIOUS ISSUE AND YOU SHOULD NOT MAKE CHANGES TO YOUR DIET OR THAT OF YOUR CHILD WITHOUT CONSULTING SOMEONE QUALIFIED TO GIVE ADVICE. THIS IS AN OPINION PIECE BASED ON RESEARCH AND EXPERIENCE AND THE AUTHOR CANNOT BE HELD LIABLE FOR PERSONAL INTERPRETATION OF ANY OF THE ABOVE.