Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why Food Families Are Important

A big part of the book manuscript which I recently submitted for publication was an extensive and detailed list of food families and their members.  From both research and personal experience I’ve learned that knowledge of food families, and their inter-relation, is extremely helpful in aiding food allergy sufferers to avoid harmful and potentially deadly foods.

While many “food allergy cookbooks” contain a food family list, it is not usually very extensive and sometimes not even particularly accurate.  To be fair, scientists are still revising categorization of some food families or members of food families, so that could explain some of the variations from book to book – for example, until rather recently amaranth was considered a member of the Goosefoot/Beet Family (Chenopodiaceae), but now is categorized as its own family (Amaranthaceae), together with quinoa and tampala – and even at that, quinoa is in a different “sub-family” from amaranth, lessening somewhat the likelihood of allergy to one even if you’re allergic to the other.  You therefore might be fine eating amaranth even if you’re allergic to beets, swiss chard, and spinach (all members of the Goosefoot/Beet Family).  Or you might, as in my case, be able to eat quinoa without a problem but have to stay away from amaranth.

In my opinion, understanding food families is KEY to being able to eat safely and well, and to achieve that goal people need to know not only which foods belong to which food families but also the fact that two or more members of the same food family MAY OR MAY NOT cause the same allergic reaction.  Some people can eat certain members of a food family but not other members of the same food family, while other people must avoid all members of the food family either because of allergy to all of them or simply because trying to find out which ones might or might not be allergenic is not worth the risk.  Furthermore, allergy to some foods within the same food family may appear at different times, often in a progressive type of situation where first one or two members of the food family are off-limits and later on an allergy to additional members becomes apparent.

If being able to eat a variety of nutritious and varied foods while avoiding harmful allergens is at the top of your priority list, I encourage you to learn as much as you can about as many food families as possible.  Start by thinking back to high school science, when we learned that all living things are scientifically categorized in a series of levels or groupings which, ultimately, are all linked at their highest level (e.g. all plants belong to the “Kingdom” of Plantae – including bacteria and fungi and sometimes separated into six smaller kingdoms – while all animals belong to the “Kingdom” of Animalia).  Below the “Kingdoms” are myriad additional groupings that are more and more narrowly defined: below “Kingdom” is “Phylum”, then “Class”, then “Order”, then “Family”, then “Genus” (sometimes called “sub-family”, and sometimes followed by “Species” to specifically differentiate between differing forms of very similar plants or animals).

With regard to food and food allergies, focus is usually on the “Family” or “sub-families” (Genus) but sometimes we must look higher up the scale to “Order” or even “Phylum”.   Thus we can pinpoint and if necessary avoid the entire family of, say, Nightshades (Solanaceae), which includes white potato, eggplant, tomato, bell pepper, chili peppers, tamarillo, tomatillo, cape gooseberry, and pepino.  Or, we might be able to safely eat some members of one family while avoiding others – my mother, for example, can eat brussels sprouts and watercress but not broccoli, cabbage, turnip, radish, or canola – even though all seven are members of the Mustard Family (known as Cruciferae or Brassicaceae).

Knowledge is even more important with foods that are harder to pinpoint as belonging to a certain food family.  Take the Mollusk Family (Mollusca), which is actually not a family but a “Phylum” that can be divided into multiple sub-classes or sub-families but usually seen lumped together for ease of reference.  The Mollusk Family includes abalone, clam, mussel, oyster, scallop, cockle, snail, squid, octopus, and cuttlefish – the first six or seven sometimes “sub-categorized” separately from the others because they are found in shells…but NOT to be confused with “shellfish” (e.g. crab, lobster, shrimp) which come from the Crustacean Family (Crustacea) – itself not actually a family but rather a sub-phylum that can in turn be further divided into multiple sub-classes or sub-families.  Thus ANY of the members of EITHER of these two “food families” MIGHT OR MIGHT NOT be allergens for you…At a minimum, knowledge tells you that “shellfish” is a broad category and you might not have to dump all of the above into the “unsafe” basket after all!

Another point to keep in mind with regard to food families:  Sometimes you will hear the same name for foods from completely separate families.  Snapper and bass both come to mind because although red snapper is a member of the Snapper Family (Lutjanidae), some fish from other food families are also referred to as snapper.  Conversely, there are many fish called bass yet they can come from any of three separate families: Sea Bass Family (Serranidae) which includes its namesake sea bass, Sunfish Family (Centrarchidae) which includes black bass, and Temperate Bass Family (Moronidae) which includes yellow bass, white bass, and striped bass.

Lastly, the inter-relation of some food families can be equally important in relation to food allergies.  For example, the Rose Family (Rosaceae) has three main sub-families which are often considered distinct and separate families and therefore an allergy to one may not mean an allergy to the others.  These sub-families are: 1) “Pome” or Apple (Pomoideae or Maloideae) which includes apple, pear, quince, mayhaw, loquat, crabapple and rosehip; 2) “Drupe” or Stonefruit (Prunoideae or Amygdaloideae) which includes plum, peach, cherry, apricot, nectarine, and almond; and 3) “Tiny Seed Berry” (Rosoideae) which includes strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, boysenberry, loganberry, youngberry, Japanese wineberry (wine raspberry), cloudberry, and garden burnet.  At the same time, one of those sub-families (the Apple Family) is also closely related to the Birch Family (Betulaceae) and therefore an allergy to members of the Apple Family may also mean an allergy to hazelnuts, wintergreen, and birch sugar (all members of the Birch Family).

Likewise, the Asparagus Family (Asparagaceae) is closely related to both the Lily Family (Liliaceae) and the Amaryllis Family (Amaryllidaceae ), increasing the likelihood of shared allergenic qualities among asparagus, aloe, sarsaparilla, and all forms of onion and garlic.  Similarly, the Caper Family (Capparidaceae or Capparaceae) is closely related to the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae or Cruciferae) and within the huge Bovine Family (Bovidae) are several large and separate but still related sub-families (each called a genus) which thus inter-relate goat, sheep, cattle, yak and muskox.  Nonetheless, many people can safely eat both lamb and beef or goat meat, while other people may find they are allergic to them all.

The more I learn about food families, the more sense I can make out of why certain foods cause an allergic reaction, and the more easily I am able to use that knowledge to continue to ensure healthy, tasty and nutritious meals are still on the menu at my house.  I invite you to share your own experiences and learning in this regard – I am sure such knowledge will benefit us all J


Katherine Josh said...

Loquat is for cough and lung in Chinese medicine. Sometimes i would take the Ninjiom Pei Pa Koa which is an extract of loquat when got sore throat.

You can access info online @

Bethany Niazian said...

Thanks, Katherine. It's true that there are a lot of great foods and ingredients from China and other parts of Asia that are not only good for one's health but also can be great substitutes for foods to which some people may be allergic.

Interestingly, despite similarity in name, loquat and kumquat are not from the same food family -- loquat is in the Apple (Pome) Family, which is a sub-family of the Rose Family, whereas kumquat is in the Citrus (Rue) Family.

Other members of the Apple Family and therefore related to loquat are, of course, apple but also pear, quince, mayhaw, and rosehip. Other members of the Citrus Family and therefore related to kumquat are lemon, orange, citron, bael fruit, and Sichuan peppercorn.

I wouldn't be surprised if in both food families Vitamin C plays a big role in how these foods support health, since obviously citrus fruits contain Vitamin C and so do rosehips and mayhaw berries. Another point to keep in mind, actually, as some people (myself included) have an adverse reaction to Vitamin C, no matter what the food source.

Thanks again for your comment!

Marta Molina said...

This is great stuff! I love the pace and tone of this blog. You are sharing a lot of scientific information without making it too dense for people to assimilate. Keep it up!