Netflix’s Food Allergy Doc Finds Its Bad Guy, But Misses the Big Picture

in Food Allergy, News, Peanut & Tree Nut
Published: January 10, 2018

Screenshot of Netflix's Rotten intro.
The streaming service Netflix has taken a plunge into the world of food allergies in its “Rotten” documentary series that launched in early January 2018. One of the six parts tackles the swift rise of food allergies. It’s titled “The Peanut Problem,” and in this reviewer’s view, it’s an episode with mixed results, but still worth watching.

The series focuses on Big Agriculture and the rise of cheap imported foods and resulting damaging effects on both local farming and the food that ends up on our plates. Fraud and corruption are recurring themes, and the producers are from no-nuance school, thumping home their message of which bad guys to blame.

In the non-allergy episodes I watched on honey production and garlic and chicken farming, it’s a tough but effective approach. But “The Peanut Problem” feels like an exception: the square peg that doesn’t fit the round hole.

The reason? There are no real “bad guys” to blame for the sharp increase in the incidence of food allergies. So this episode tells us what the food allergy community already knows: that scientists are still scouring for answers; that the Western diet and changes to the gut microbiome appear to be significant clues to the “why” of food allergy.

“The Peanut Problem’s” best moments are with Ming Tsai, the chef and allergy dad who was one of the early restaurateurs to offer allergy-friendly meals at his Boston-area restaurants. When he says to restaurant owners who aren’t so accommodating, “If you don’t know what’s in your food, get out of the business – today,” you’ll feel like cheering. Other inspired moments include the candor of parents and kids sharing their realities of life with food allergies.

Dr. Ruchi Gupta does a good job of clearly explaining allergy statistics and food allergy symptoms. But the Northwestern University associate pediatrics prof, who has headed studies quantifying food allergy incidence in America, also gets thrust into the role of explaining the “why” of the rise of food allergies and the thinking behind the few desensitizing therapies currently in development. Gupta is fine, but simply the wrong voice. A flaw of the film is that not one of the allergists who studies these therapies in clinical trials was interviewed.

The producers even head to England – home of Drs. Gideon Lack and George du Toit, the researchers behind the groundbreaking LEAP study that revealed the significantly reduced odds of a peanut allergy if the legume is introduced early into a high-risk baby’s diet. It’s most unfortunate the producers didn’t stop by for a videoed chat with one of them. It would have been illuminating.

Chef Ming Tsai. Photo: Twitter
Instead, the film spends a full 15 of its 48 minutes detailing the events leading to the conviction of Mohammed Zaman, the U.K. restaurant owner who had peanuts substituted for almonds in curry takeout meals – and caused a peanut-allergic customer’s fatal reaction in 2014. This long section helps the square peg to fit: the producers have found their bad guy.

Unfortunately, by giving so much airtime to one of the most despicable individuals ever to serve food – the takeaway message is that restaurants are dangerous or, in the words of the doc, they have “become battlegrounds” for those with food allergies. This is increasingly not the allergic patron’s reality, and stirs up unnecessary fear for allergic families.

As Allergic Living magazine has covered and as the reviews on the website Allergy Eats show, a growing number of restaurants are now welcoming those with food allergies. Ming Tsai rightly points out (but he’s undercut by the Zaman coverage) that accommodations are not difficult to implement once a system is in place. It’s also surprising that the producers, the team behind chef Anthony Bourdain’s TV series, would leave a bad taste about an industry they know well.

While called “The Peanut Problem,” almost everyone in the film speaks of the Top 8 allergens – since the real story of food allergy today is the rise of multiple food allergies. Peanut appears to be singled out because of its prevalence in kids and surveys that show a majority of severe reactions tied to the legume. Also, this again provides thematic continuity – the other five episodes take aim at the production of individual foods: honey, chicken, garlic, milk and cod.

The program ends up with an odd weighting. There’s too much of one bad guy and an extremely condensed explanation of where we’re headed with food allergy therapies. The idea of oral immunotherapy (OIT) – introducing food early to retrain the allergic individual’s immune system – is explained so briefly and uncritically that I fear it leads to less than more understanding. “Just eat the food” is the message that resonates, but the process is still in clinical trials, comes with side effects and isn’t for everyone.

On balance, there are enough good moments to make “The Peanut Problem” interesting, if flawed, viewing. The best news is that if the series proves popular on Netflix, many thousands of people will gain a new appreciation for the fact that food allergies are often severe, and potentially life-threatening.

The bad news is your relatives may jump to wrong assumptions about treatments. And they may not want you to ever go to a restaurant – unless Ming Tsai is in the kitchen.

Review Rating: 3 of 5 stars