Monday, November 17, 2008

Getting Ready for Thanksgiving Gatherings

Today, as I was driving around town running errands, I drove past the city park and workers were already putting up holiday lights. It was a little bit of a shock – the sun is shining, the weather is still warm, my husband had to mow the lawn again yesterday… It doesn’t feel like the holidays are approaching. But then I realized Thanksgiving is next week.

How did that happen?

Like it or not, the holidays are, indeed, on their way. And with the holidays come family gatherings, parties, and traditional feasts. And as if there isn’t enough pressure surrounding large family gatherings, when you throw food allergies into the mix, the holidays can sometimes feel like a field of land mines.

To help prepare for Thanksgiving, we had our November meeting of the Davis County support group last week. Our first order of business was to welcome a new member to our group! We spent quite a bit of time discussing safe foods and how to find them, such as chocolate chips, granola bars, cereals, cake mixes, brownies, cookies – all those foods we love to indulge in but have to be especially careful of when we shop and cook for food-allergic family members.

We also exchanged some allergen-friendly Thanksgiving recipes, such as the Salt Lake Tribune’s recipe for Apple Crisp, found here. (Just substitute safe margarine for the butter, and gluten-free flour if necessary.)

When it comes to holiday survival techniques, we talked about a few ideas that have worked for us. One survival technique many of us have used at family gatherings is to simply bring our own food for our food-allergic kids. I used to carry safe chicken nuggets everywhere we went when my son was younger. I still tuck a couple of safe granola bars in my purse even now, just in case we can’t find anything at a party for him to eat – at least that will tide him over until we can make a graceful exit and find him some safe food.

Another tip is when going to a potluck, always volunteer to take the dessert. When people bring desserts, they bring their fanciest creations, which for some reason almost always seems to ensure they will include nuts, chocolate, and dairy ingredients. So volunteering to bring a dessert will cut down on some of that risk, and will ensure that your food-allergic family member gets something sweet to look forward to at the end of the meal.

We ended our meeting by sampling some tasty treats from Enjoy Life! Foods, who graciously sent us a sampling of goodies, such as four flavors of granola bars, two flavors of cookies, chocolate chips, and their latest product – scrumptious Boom Choco Boom chocolate bars! Enjoy Life! Foods makes products that are free of the top 8 allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish). Locally, we can find their products at Smiths, Dan’s, and Whole Foods Markets, as well as others. Check out their website here.

It was a good meeting, and we enjoyed sharing tips and ideas with each other.

Next week, I’ll be exercising my favorite Thanksgiving survival technique – escaping. I’ll be as far from electronic devices as possible, so I won’t be posting a blog entry next week. But I’ll be back after Thanksgiving, so look for a new blog entry when I return!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Another Study, Another Contradiction

Yet another study about peanut allergies has been published this week, and this one just adds to the confusion. Welcome to the non-exact science of food allergies!

The October 2008 issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has published an article detailing a study in which Jewish populations in the United Kingdom and in Israel were compared. They used Jewish subjects in both countries to try to level the playing ground between the two groups as much as possible, with both groups sharing similar genetics and social and economic backgrounds.

In the U.K., mothers are advised to avoid peanuts while pregnant and nursing and to avoid feeding their infants peanuts, so at nine months of age, only 10% of the U.K. children in the study there were eating peanuts. In Israel, there is no such recommendation, so 69% of Israeli children were eating peanuts. What they found is that 1.85% of children in the U.K. have peanut allergy, while in Israel, only 0.17% of the children have peanut allergy.

In other words, in the U.K., where mothers limit children’s exposure to peanuts, kids were ten times more likely to have a peanut allergy than in Israel.

Now what?

The conclusion many people will leap to is simple – early exposure to peanuts is GOOD for you! But is it really? Other studies have shown that early exposure INCREASES the rate of peanut allergy. As so often happens, scientific studies are contradicting each other, and no one understands why.

Many of us who have children with peanut allergies would question this finding, at least from our own experience – I ate peanut butter sandwiches throughout my pregnancy because it was one of the few foods I could stomach during those nauseating months, and yet my son reacted the first time I let him have a bite of peanut butter. If early introduction should have prevented his allergy, all those sandwiches I ate when I was pregnant should have made him a little peanut-eating superman. On the other hand, he was over a year old when I gave him that sandwich, so maybe if I’d given him peanut butter when he was 4 or 5 months old… who knows?

The authors recognize that one study such as theirs cannot be used to reverse current recommendations. In fact, the study says more “randomized controlled interventional studies…are therefore required to determine whether peanut avoidance or the early dietary introduction of peanut will prevent [peanut allergy]. Until such evidence is obtained, current recommendations should remain unchanged.”

Human beings love simple answers. We like one-to-one correspondences. We like to find a direct line between two points. And it really, really makes us mad when we find a nice, straight line, and then someone has the audacity to point out that our straight line falls apart when the end-points are moved around a bit.

So although the study used two groups of Jewish children, all the variables weren’t controlled. What environmental chemicals are used in the U.K. that aren’t used in Israel? What other foods are frequently given to Israeli children that could be providing a kind of protection that U.K. kids aren’t eating? Do both groups have the same chemicals in their drinking water, in their cooking utensils, in their bread? What medicines do the children in each group receive? How long are they nursed?

There are thousands of variables involved when it comes to analyzing the human body chemistry, and I don’t envy scientists the job of sorting them all out as they wage this ongoing battle against food allergies. But I salute them and cheer them on.

I don’t know what to think about this new study. I don’t know that I believe early introduction will save children. I don’t know that I DON’T believe it.

But I do believe that the more studies like this that are performed, the closer we’ll get to understanding what is going wrong inside our bodies. It won’t be easy – when our bodies decide a nutrient is a poison, something outside the boundaries of logic is at work, and it will require thousands of different scientific minds thinking in thousands of different directions before we round up enough points to show us that the lines are really connecting in a meaningful way.

I’m glad this study has been published – not because I want to see a new push for early introduction of peanuts, but because I want to see another group of scientists say, “What? Is that true?” and dig into their own new study to verify, contradict, or more likely, cast more confusion on this conclusion. That’s the only way we will advance this frustratingly non-exact science of food allergies.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds Recipe

Another goblin-glaring, spirit-spooking, monster-mashing day has come and gone. My son the Human Whirlwind dressed up like a Clone Trooper from Star Wars. We went to some friends’ house for trick-or-treating and Halloween hi-jinx and had a great time.

As usual, we didn’t let food allergies slow us down – for dinner, the kids had safe hot dogs wrapped in safe Pillsbury breadsticks so they looked like mummies… um, the hot dogs looked like mummies, that is – not the kids. (The grown-ups opted for hamburgers instead of hot dog mummies.) We also had Bush’s Baked Beans (no milk, eggs, or nuts), Jell-O Jigglers in Halloween shapes, chips and salsa, and safe carrot cake cupcakes with icing decorated like pumpkin faces and spider webs.

We didn’t go hungry. Somehow, we never do!

Every once in a while, I like to try something new, so this year I decided to roast the pumpkin seeds that I pulled out of the jack-o-lanterns that my son and I carved the night before Halloween. I’ve never tried it before, but they turned out pretty tasty. After reading a bunch of different recipes, I combined the best ideas of all of them, and this is what I came up with. If you still have pumpkins sitting on your porch that you never got around to carving (I still have several), open them up and roast the seeds for a savory snack. Bring a bowlful to your next gathering and watch how fast they vanish into thin air!

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

1 quart water
2 Tbsp salt
2 cups pumpkin seeds (about one large-ish pumpkin’s yield)
2 Tbps safe margarine or olive oil
1 tsp garlic salt (or 1/2 tsp garlic powder and 1/2 tsp regular salt)
1 tsp seasoned salt

Pull the seeds out of the pumpkin, removing as much of the strings as possible. Rinse. Bring the water and 2 Tbsp of salt to a boil, then add the pumpkin seeds and boil for 10 minutes. Drain, spread out on paper towels, and dry overnight.

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a saucepan or skillet, melt the safe margarine. Remove from heat and add the pumpkin seeds to the melted margarine. Sprinkle with the seasonings and stir thoroughly, so that all the seeds are coated. Spread evenly in a single layer on a large cookie sheet.

Bake for 30 – 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes, until crisp and golden. Let cool. Store in the refrigerator in an air-tight container.

Some people like to eat them shell and all. Others like to remove the shell first, like sunflower seeds, and eat only the green soft seed inside. Either method is tasty – it’s up to you!