Hello! My name is Mengyi and I am the Research & Development Technologist here at The Greater Knead. Basically, I help materialize Michelle and Alison’s new product ideas by researching and conducting experiments. If you are one of the first customers who ordered our delicious new Bagel Chip product, then there’s a large chance that your chips were hand-sliced, seasoned and packaged by me :).
Almost 3 years ago, I took a long 25-hour flight from Shenzhen, China to Philadelphia to study Food Science at Drexel University. With all the prerequisite knowledge I had about food, I had no idea what Celiac Disease was and had never thought that someone could be intolerant/allergic to the some of the most common foods, like the items in the US defined Top 8 Allergens (wheat, soy, egg, dairy, etc).
One of the first things that I noticed when I came to America was that there were so many different options on restaurant menus. Little markings or symbols for gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free etc. The only term I was really familiar with was vegan so based on that knowledge, I assumed most of these were lifestyle choices. The more I learned as I continued to explore Philadelphia, I realized that this was not actually the case.
Thinking back on it, the reason why I had these misunderstandings was pretty obvious: I had never heard of these problems. None of my friends, family members or people I know back home have severe food allergies. Some of them may have small sensitivities to dairy or seafood, but no one (including themselves) took it seriously because it would just be several extra trips to the bathroom. In addition to that, the awareness, recognition, and diagnosis of food allergies in China were relatively low. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) was signed into United States law in 2006, which requires all food labels to list ingredients that may cause allergic reactions. Seven years later, similar requirements were recommended but not required in the Standard on Nutrition Labeling of Prepackaged Foods, a Chinese governmental legislation. Regulations on allergens in food are slower moving in China, but since I’ve been in Philadelphia – it seems there is more and more understanding and education coming.
I wondered, which I found out later is a common question for people in America as well, could it be that there’s just a smaller prevalence of people with food allergies in China and other countries? Curiously, I looked into this for a bit. Here’s what I found. Conclusion first: The overall prevalence of food allergies in Asia are somewhat comparable to the West. However, the types of food allergies differ. Peanut and tree nut allergies in Asian countries are significantly lower than that in western countries for still unknown reasons. Eggs and cow’s milk are the two most common allergies in children and infants, which is comparable western countries. The prevalence of shellfish and fish allergies in China is actually higher than that of American children and adults.
In this article about Celiac Disease in Chinese Adults, the authors examined 62 patients with chronic diarrhea in the course of 5 years, and 4 of them were diagnosed with CD (about 6.5%). They speculated that CD might not be as rare in China as previously thought, especially in northern China where wheat is consumed more than rice. The seemingly low CD occurrence in China may be caused by under-diagnosis and lack of public awareness, so potentially just a few years behind the US on the identification of Celiac Disease.
The awareness of food allergies in China is increasing dramatically in recent years. Stories, discussions, short comics, etc. are being shared on social media, communities are being built, and regulations are being made. I still worry about my friends who have food allergies or dietary restrictions when they travel to China, but I’m certain that things are becoming better as more and more people are becoming aware and caring!