City Paper is not for tourists
This week’s question comes from Kelly Cresap of Silver Spring who wants to know:
“I got a headache recently after having a salad with fried spinach and grilled chicken at a restaurant in Silver Spring. The headache is consistent with ones I’ve gotten from meals prepared with non-organic oils. Do you know which restaurants use organic oils? Or would it be easier for me to avoid foods that require oil in preparation?”
I’ve been putting off this question for weeks now, for mostly for one reason: Where the hell do I begin? Call all the restaurants in the area and ask if they use organic oils? Mix it up with allergists who’ll tell me I’m an idiot for trying to address someone’s potential food reactions without a better understanding of what’s causing the problem?
My first call was to Nora Pouillon, the godmother of organic in D.C. Pouillon’s place, Restaurant Nora, is certified organic, which means that 95 percent of everything that her kitchen produces is organic, including her cooking and salad oils. “I don’t think that anybody [else] uses organic oil because it’s much too expensive,” Pouillon says. “I get it delivered in 500 kilogram drums…because that’s the only way I can afford it. If you buy it in any smaller quantity, it’s prohibitive. I think most people just use regular oil.”
Pouillon has never heard of anyone experiencing headaches from non-organic oils, but she didn’t rule out the possibility. Corn oils, after all, may be processed from genetically modified corn, and some lower-quality olive oils use chemicals to extract the last drop of liquid. But she also wondered if the culprit may be something other than oils. She wondered if flavor-enhancers such as MSG, a common ingredient in restaurant cooking, might be causing the headaches.
I put Kelly’s question to a pair of doctors as well, one of whom didn’t want his name used. Dr. Victoria Goldsten, a doctor of naturopathy, has heard of people being allergic to “specific oils but not so much non-organic, because each oil, their structure is a little different.” Still, she believes “there’s probably some form of chemical in the [oil-making] process that [Kelly’s] reacting to.”
The publicity-shy allergist was more blunt. He thought Kelly’s question was “almost impossible to answer” without testing. He suggested that Kelly take the potentially offending meal to a board-certified allergist, who can break it down and create a series of skin tests from its component parts, including the oils. He said there are a “million reasons” for someone to get a headache, but that “food allergies per se are not really at the top of the list.”
The bad news is that if you’re indeed allergic to non-organic oils—-or maybe even just highly intolerant to them—-your only solution will be to avoid restaurants, since most seem to prefer non-organic oils. As the good doc said, “There’s no treatment for food allergies other than avoidance.”