Monday, November 30, 2009

Positively Red Robin

Last night, my husband, son, mother-in-law and I went to Red Robin for dinner. We’ve eaten there before, but usually my son has eaten off the kid’s menu, and we’ve asked about nuts and peanuts in the alfredo sauce and the chicken fingers, and we’ve been fine.

Now that he’s getting older (he’s eleven now!), he’s getting more adventurous and he wants to order things off the regular menu. My friend Kim had told me that Red Robin has an extensive list for allergic customers of what to order and how to order it, broken down by the eight common food allergens. Of course, we didn’t go by the house before deciding to get dinner, so I couldn’t check the list she’d emailed me.

When we got to the restaurant, I asked the waitress about “the list” and she told me she’d go check. In a minute, the manager was at my table asking about our needs. I told him, and he ran off to get the list, printed it off, and brought it right back to me. He told me it looked like my son could order the burger he wanted, just without the Red Robin Seasoning on the patty or on the steak fries.

So that’s what we ordered. In a few minutes, the waitress brought our food out, and said the manager was making sure my son’s burger was cooked correctly. Sure enough, in about thirty seconds, the manager walked out with my son’s plate. Then, several times during the meal, the manager and waitress both stopped by to check on us.

I have to tell you, I was impressed. I don’t recall ever getting such gracious attention for my son’s allergies at a restaurant before. They seemed to go out of their way to take us seriously, to do everything they could to help, and to keep checking to make sure we were doing well.

Meanwhile, my mother-in-law was even more surprised than I was. Not being around us more than a week or two each year, she is still surprised at how much effort it takes to avoid peanuts and tree nuts. She has seen me order for my son and ask about allergens, but she’s never experienced anything like the service we got last night. When she was raising children, of course, few people had food allergies, and fewer still would have known the first thing about handling them. She’s learned a lot from our experience. And as she watched the manager and waitress cater to us last night, she remarked at how much more aware everyone seems to be now than when we started this odyssey ten years ago.

What a difference a decade makes.

This morning, I sent an email to Red Robin’s comment section on their website complimenting the waitress and manager. I also asked a question that is bothering me. The allergen list that the manager brought me said that for peanut allergies, we should ask for the burger and steak fries without the Red Robin Seasoning. However, the bottle of “Red Robin Seasoning” sitting on the table said nothing about peanut contamination, and listed “Soy” as the only allergen. So I asked if the seasoning on the table is different from the seasoning in the kitchen, or if the bottle on the table should include a peanut warning. I will let you know what I hear from them.

In the meantime, I checked their website for the list of what and how to order for each allergen, and the only one they had online is for wheat and gluten. (See Red Robin's Wheat/Gluten Menu List.) For all other allergens, you must send them an email through the Red Robin General Inquiry contact form. Be specific about which of the 8 common allergens you have, and allow at least a couple of days to get the reply.

If you eat at Red Robin, I hope your experience is as positive as mine was!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Climate Change Increasing Food Allergies

I’ve written before about oral allergy syndrome – the concept that allergen proteins, whether in pollens or in foods, belong to a limited number of protein families, and that many pollen proteins are similar enough in structure to unrelated food proteins that a sensitivity to one can make you susceptible to the other, even though the two plants aren’t technically related. For example, an allergy to birch may make you allergic to peanuts, because some of the proteins found in birch pollen is similar in structure to some of the proteins in peanuts. So even though the two plants aren’t related at all, the birch pollen, which gets into your lungs freely because it’s airborne, can eventually trigger an allergic reaction to peanuts. (See "Regional Differences in Food Allergies.")

I also talked about how this oral allergy syndrome may explain why different foods are the allergic culprits in different parts of the world – because the weeds and trees in England are different from the weeds and trees in Africa, for example, the common food allergies also vary between the two regions.

Now there are starting to be several studies that show this oral allergy syndrome affect is increasing because of global climate change.

In a nutshell, researchers are discovering that with the longer warm seasons and melting ice caps, more land mass is staying warmer longer, producing more and more plants. Ragweed, for example, is thriving for more weeks every year in some parts of America. That means not only a lengthening of hay fever season for pollen sufferers, but also more exposure in expanding areas where people can become susceptible to the corresponding food allergens.

Australian scientist Dr. Paul Beggs was awarded the OSMR Jamkie Callachor Eureka Prize for Medical Research in Australia this year (Australia’s most prestigious science award) for his research on the effect climate change is having on allergens. As explained in the article “Global Allergic Reaction” from the Australian Museum, which awards the Eureka Prize, “Dr. Beggs published the first academic papers on the possible impacts of increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns on asthma; air-based allergens (such as pollen) and plant food allergens such as peanuts.”

Dr. Beggs isn’t the only one researching these links between climate change and allergies. For example, other scientists have shown that people exposed to higher levels of ragweed pollen and ozone together are more likely to suffer from allergies than from either substance alone.

The scientific literature is filled with studies showing direct, distinct correlations between climate change and various elements of human health, and the link between warming temperatures and both airborne and food-borne allergens is astonishing.

Just something to think about the next time we food allergy sufferers have an opportunity to do something proactive for the environment.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gluten-Free Resources in Davis County

Yesterday, the Bizarro comic strip in the local newspaper was a cocktail party scene where a bunch of superheroes are standing around with little plates and drinks in hand. Wonder Woman says to Superman, “These are delicious! Have you tried the kryptonite puffs? Oops!... Sorry.”

Superman has a food allergy! Who knew?

For all you Super People in Davis County, Utah, for whom gluten or wheat is your own personal kryptonite, I have good news for you: I’ve found a couple of stores in Layton that stock gluten-free foods and supplies (like flour), as well as a new gluten-free bakery opening next week in Kaysville.

Gluten Free Foods in Layton is a completely gluten-free store! They’re located at 1596 N Hill Field Rd, in Layton, and they’re open Tuesday through Saturday (closed Sunday and Monday). Drop in and talk to the friendly owner about her great selection of gluten-free foods. 801-776-1330.

Harvest Moon Health Foods is a health food store whose owners avoid gluten in their own diets, so they have a good selection of everything from tortillas to bread to pastas, as well as lots of gluten-free protein drinks and supplements. They’re located in Layton at 2146 N Main in Antelope Square (in the strip mall next to Kmart), and they have another store in South Ogden at 1735 E. Skyline Dr. Layton store: 801-825-1389; South Ogden store: 801-479-9474.

Craving gluten-free treats like cookies, cupcakes, mini bundt cakes, or brownies? Your dreams are coming true! At our meeting last Wednesday, Allison Regan, owner of the gluten-free bakery Sweet Cake Bake Shop came to introduce herself and she brought free samples! Trust me, her chocolate chips cookies were unbelievably delicious. Big, soft, chocolaty, and yummy! She’s planning to have her bakery open next week, just in time to fill orders for dried bread cubes (to make gluten-free stuffing, and she’ll provide the recipe!) and gluten-free pie crusts for those holiday pies.

It’s really wonderful to have a resource like hers in this area. She said a grown man actually had tears in his eyes when he tried her chocolate cupcakes, because it had been so long since he’d had a good chocolate cake. When you can bring happiness like that to someone, you know you’re on the right track! Her store is located at 237 W. 200 N., in Kaysville. 801-444-3288.

If you have other food allergies, like nuts, milk, or eggs, note that Allison and other manufacturers often use nut flours in their baked goods, as well as milk and egg products. Allison did talk to us a lot at our meeting about products she could use that would eliminate milk from her baked goods, because so many people who have gluten issues also are allergic to milk. So that may happen in the future, but for now, know that if you have additional food allergies, call ahead to these stores or to Allison to find out if they have any products that are safe for your family.

But for people with celiac disease or wheat allergies, these resources may help bring a little sunshine into their lives! Enjoy!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Way to Go, Wonka!

Four weeks ago, I wrote about calling the Wonka candy manufacturing company to ask about their labeling (see “Reading Halloween Candy Labels for Fun and Profit”) because I found bags of the same Halloween-sized candy at different stores that were labeled differently – one bag had cross-contamination warnings, and the other didn’t. When I called, the man who answered was really helpful. He read me information about the Wonka allergen protocols and asked if he could send me a letter explaining it in more detail, along with some coupons. I said sure.

Many times, when I call a food manufacturer to ask about food allergies, the person who answers is truly stumped. Other times, the person simply reads the ingredients label and says, “Well, it doesn’t look like it has peanuts.” (Thanks, I can read labels myself.) It’s rare that a company actually goes to the effort to 1) have a stringent food allergy protocol, and 2) inform their customer support about that protocol.

So mucho props to Wonka (a division of Nestlé) for understanding the seriousness of food allergies, for having a protocol that they document and follow, and for making a real effort to inform their customers about it. I’m sure they won’t mind me posting their letter, since they send it out to customers who ask. I’m just helping spread their news. Thanks, Wonka! (And all other food manufacturers, take note.)

Dear Ms. Lindberg,

Thank you for contacting us. Your comments regarding Wonka® Mix-Ups are very important to us.

In regards to your inquiry, there are eight major food allergens, including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts and almonds), soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Labeling regulation requires that all ingredients added to products be listed in the ingredient statement. For those eight major allergens, Nestlé ensures that they are labeled, regardless of the amount or whether a supplier may have added it to their ingredient. It is the responsibility of Nestlé to ensure that these ingredients are properly labeled by their common or usual name in the ingredient statement.

We want to help our consumers avoid inadvertent ingestion of their specific allergens of concern by accurately informing them about the product ingredients and by following Good Manufacturing Practices in our factories. All factories using a critical allergen as an ingredient must take all reasonable precautions to avoid cross-contact of products that do not normally contain these allergens and products that do not carry a specific mention in the ingredient statement. These precautionary measures include efficient cleaning of production lines and equipment and strict separation of materials that may contain critical allergens. If an allergen does not appear on the ingredient statement, then it has not been added to the product and the likelihood of cross-contamination contact is so extremely low that the risk is insignificant.

We appreciate the opportunity to be of service to you and hope your inquiry was handled to your satisfaction.

Consumer Response Representative

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Shot Heard ‘Round the iPod

Did you feel the planets align today? The earth shake? The mountains move? The cosmos shift in their timeless tracks?

Why would all these momentous things be happening, you ask? Because my son started allergy shots today for his environmental allergies (pollens, molds, animal dander, etc.).

Really, this is big stuff. The last time he had a shot was three years ago, and it took me and four nurses to hold him down, a half-hour of hysterics, and a margarita (that was for me) to accomplish it. That’s right, the human whirlwind of energy and adventure was transformed into a thrashing berserker by a little ol’ needle.

So starting immunotherapy shots today was bigger than big.

In addition to his peanut and tree nut allergy, my son is also allergic to almost everything that blooms, sheds, or slimes in Utah. Molds, trees, grasses, weeds, critters – they all gang up on his respiratory system year ‘round, and he’s on a small battery of daily medications to keep his lungs reaction-free.

So after thinking about immunotherapy for a couple of years, we finally decided (okay, I decided) the time was right to start building up his body’s own immune system so that he can hopefully wean himself away from the medications.

Yeah. Easier said than done.

Being a practical mom, I’m not above bribery. In fact, I keep the bribery option firmly seated in my parenting toolbelt for just such occasions, and I’m not afraid to use it.

This one required the big bribe. The open-ended whatever-you-want bribe. The I’ve-got-to-be-out-of-my-mind bribe.

We started small several weeks ago. It’s been building up ever since. Finally, on Thursday, we came to an understanding. A new iPod Nano. And it had to be orange.


“Trust me. This will hurt me more than it will hurt you,” I told him. Fortunately, his birthday is coming up soon, so the bribe became both bribe and birthday present. Still painful.

Today was the big day. I didn’t tell him this morning before he left for school, because I didn’t want to give him a whole day to agonize over it, or I’d never be able to drag him out the door. When he got home from school, I sprung it on him. His shoulders drooped. But he quietly scooped up his new Legos magazine and followed me out the door.

At the office, the nurse said, “How are you today?” He stared at the floor.

“He’s a little nervous,” I said. Like it wasn’t obvious.

She swabbed his arms (he needs two shots – one in each arm – oh, the horror), sprayed a little numbing spray on them, and reached for the needles. A minute later, it was all over, and he was standing there surprised.

“Was that okay?” I asked.

He nodded. Clearly, he’d expected it to feel something like a nastily barbed lightning bolt from truly angry Greek gods. But it was a piece of cake. A really expensive, orange piece of iCake.

On the way to the car, I told him I think I’d gotten the short end of the deal. He grinned.

So if you felt that little tremor in the fabric of space and time today, don’t worry about it. It was just my son making his peace with a tiny little half-inch needle that will, with any luck, put his immune system on the road towards wellness (and his ears on the road to music nirvana).