Monday, September 28, 2009

Cloudy With a Chance of Food Allergies

My husband took my son to see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs yesterday. I’d heard there was a scene in it where someone has an allergic reaction to peanuts. I didn’t tell my son about it – I wanted to see his reaction when he got home. In fact, what I really wanted him to do was write about it for my blog today.

The interesting thing is, he was able to describe the scene to me just fine, but when I asked him what he thought about it, he shrugged. “I don’t have any feelings about it at all. It was just a scene in a movie, Mom.”

“But did you think it was kind of neat to see food allergies show up in a movie, or did they make it too silly?”

“Mom, I told you. It was just a scene. I didn’t laugh, I didn’t cry, I didn’t go Arggg!”

Hmmm. “But do you ever see characters with food allergies in any of the cartoons or movies you see on TV?”

“I wouldn’t say it was normal. They don’t usually say that people have allergies in a movie or show. It was just a scene in a movie; I didn’t think much of it.”

I’ve been reading a few comments online about this scene, and it’s mixed. For the most part, parents of food allergic children are annoyed or downright horrified that 1) the reaction is depicted as comical, 2) the smart allergic heroine carries a Doppler radar thingy but not an EpiPen, and 3) it’s unrealistic, yet still scary for little ones with reactions, and 4) it makes light of the whole thing. On the other hand, there’s that old saw about “any publicity is good publicity,” so some parents are saying it’s good to see that food allergies are common enough that they can be used as a major plot point (I brought this up a while back in a posting about allergies in the movie The Game Plan) or even as a throw-away piece of dialogue (like in an episode of the TV show Reaper). Only a few are saying it’s no big deal either way. I guess my son is one of those.

He’s ten, of course, so maybe older kids are simply able to recognize that it’s silly, unrealistic, and as absurd as the entire rest of the movie, and therefore not to be taken seriously. I would be willing to bet that kids his age are probably better equipped to let things like this roll off their backs than we parents are. We parents take everything seriously when it comes to our children.

So if you’ve seen the movie, what did you think of it? And more importantly, what did your food-allergic child think about it? Did it help, hurt, or was it “just a scene in a movie”?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Regional Differences in Food Allergies

I came across a story in New Scientist magazine about possible reasons why people in different parts of the world are prone to different food allergies (“Food Allergies Get Curiouser and Curiouser.”) The peanut is a common allergen in the United States, but not so common in other countries. Melon is a more common problem in Greece. Apples are the culprit in Italy.

Why are there so many regional differences?

This article discusses studies that show a possible reason: many plant pollens that cause hay fever contain proteins that are very similar to the proteins in certain foods. While the plants and foods aren’t actually related, the molecular structure of the proteins are similar enough that a sensitivity to one (in the form of hay fever) might “prime the pump” and make you more susceptible to developing an allergy to the other. The article uses the examples of birch pollen allergies, which may make northern Europeans more prone to apple allergies, dust-mite feces that may correlate to shrimp allergies, and mugwort allergies that may link to carrots, celery, and sunflower seeds.

There have been studies in the past that have tried to examine reasons why regional differences exist in food allergies. In November 2008, I wrote about a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that compared Jewish populations in the U.K. and Israel and their very different rates of peanut allergy. The study used Jewish populations in both regions to try to control as many cultural variables as possible. Their conclusion was that since the Israeli population gives infants more peanuts and has a lower rate of peanut allergy, perhaps everyone should introduce peanuts to infants earlier and in larger quantities. But that goes contrary to other studies that seem to show it’s better to prevent peanuts from being introduced until later in life.

But the study didn’t seem to take into account environmental pollens in the two countries, which would be vastly different between the two climates. The New Scientist article brings up an interesting new angle on that older study – what if the reason the U.K. children have more peanut allergies is because their bodies are already primed to react by a pollen that is prevalent in the U.K., but which doesn’t exist in the drier environs of Israel? It would be interesting if someone could go back to those original U.K. and Israeli populations and cross-check the existing pollens in those two areas to see if a new pattern emerges from that.

So once again, we still don’t know very much about the causes of food allergies. We are still bombarded by theories. We still feel like we’re grasping at straws. However, there is some good news: more and more studies ARE being conducted. Only after many years and many individual studies that test different aspects of allergies will scientists be able to look back, gather up all the thousands of puzzle pieces from all those studies, and begin fitting them together into a whole picture. And only then will we start to see what we’re really facing and how to deal with it all.

On the one hand, it’s frustrating to feel like we still know so little. On the other hand, I have to remind myself that we know a lot more now than we did a decade ago, and in ten more years, we’ll know even more. Each new study turns over another puzzle piece on our table. And that gives me something to hope for.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fighting Battles Together

Last week, at our Davis County chapter meeting, we talked with a member who’s having trouble getting any cooperation from her food-allergic child’s elementary school teacher and principal. She came to our meeting because she wanted to talk with other parents who’ve “been there” and who understand what she’s going through.

Over the last ten years, I’ve seen so much progress in the world of food allergies. Many more people know about food allergies now than a decade ago. More restaurants understand. More neighbors “get it.” More news reports deal with it. More cookbooks address it. And more schools understand and accommodate it. But not all. Not yet.

This mom’s school insists her daughter is the first they’ve ever had with a severe food allergy. Unfortunately, she won’t be the last. They can try to put their collective heads in the sand, but that’s not going to stop the fact that the incidence of peanut allergies in children has doubled in the last five years and shows every sign of continuing that disheartening pace. While it’s no consolation right now for the mom who has to go through all the battles at this school first, she’s blazing the way and making the trail safer for all the kids who will be following her daughter into that school system.

In the meantime, those of us who’ve already gone through some of those battles can encourage each other on, applaud our successes, and learn from our failures. We can support moms like this one by sharing what we’ve tried, what we’ve learned, and what we’ve gained.

Some of the things we’ve learned:

1. When people insist food allergies aren’t that big of a deal, or that we’re making up the seriousness of food allergies, it’s usually because they’re confusing food allergies with pollen allergies (hay fever) or with lactose intolerance (a completely different illness). It’s an understandable confusion. For hay fever or lactose intolerance, you can often take a pill and be fine. Explaining how those ailments are completely different diseases from food allergies is the first step to getting those people to understand.

2. Often, just saying, “You’re making me feel sad and helpless” directly to the person who’s making our life difficult snaps them into realization, and they will sometimes make a new effort to help, where before they were unthinkingly callous. Try it. Being honest about our own fears can bring out the best “hero syndrome” in others, even those we could have sworn would be enemies forever.

3. There are legal recourses if all else fails. Our kids can be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and by 504 plans.

4. Honey catches more flies than lemon. No matter how frustrated we are, we need to try to remain positive and helpful. Throwing a temper tantrum will never win anyone over to our side. (Now if I could just convince my son of that!)

5. We’re not alone. There are 12 million people in the U.S. alone with severe food allergies. One out of twenty kids has a severe food allergies (that’s about one per classroom). Once we start talking about our food allergies, we discover more people than we ever dreamed are in the same boat – we find neighbors, teammates, classmates, church members, business associates, and even celebrities who are going through the same trials as we are, and we can draw strength and inspiration from each other.

For everyone who’s out there feeling like they’re fighting this battle on their own, know that there are plenty of kindred spirits who are going through the same things. Over time, we’re finding each other and creating support groups that help, whether online, or in meetings, or standing in the grocery check-out line. Reach out for help, or reach out to help. More and more, there’s strength in our numbers.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Tomatoes, Tomatoes Everywhere – Drying Them

I love the taste of sun-dried tomatoes with pasta or on salads, so last year, when I was overwhelmed with cherry tomatoes, I researched how to make sun-dried tomatoes. I was a little dismayed to learn that sun-drying tomatoes requires setting them outside in hot, dry weather for 2 or 3 weeks, covered in screens to keep the bugs and other critters out, and bringing them in and out if it rains. Ack. That’s way too much work for me.

Then I discovered it’s much easier to dry them in the oven, and it only takes a day. And, what’s even better is I don’t have to chase bugs or birds away from them when I use my oven! That works for me!

You can oven-dry any sort of tomatoes. My mom dries her Roma tomatoes and then snacks on them like healthy potato chips during the day. I like to dry my cherry tomatoes because they are about the size of raisins – perfect for tossing into salads or into an alfredo sauce for pasta.

Drying tomatoes is really easy, but it’s a little time-consuming, so don’t start when it’s nearly bedtime (which seems to be when so many of us mothers start projects, doesn’t it?).

1. Use a cookie sheet with raised edges (so the tomatoes don’t slide off the tray when you’re taking them out of the oven – voice of experience here!), and line it with parchment paper. (Tomatoes react with aluminum, so you really don’t want to use aluminum pans.)

2. Slice your tomatoes thin (if you’re using cherry tomatoes, cut them in half), put them on a paper towel to drain for a couple of minutes, then place them on the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. (Drain cherry tomatoes on the paper towel cut side down, then place them cut side up on the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet).

3. Sprinkle the tomatoes very lightly with sea salt, seasoned salt, garlic salt, or other seasoning, depending on your taste. It’s easy to over-salt them, so go easy.

4. Turn your oven to its lowest setting (200 degrees is ideal), put the cookie sheet in the oven, and let the tomatoes dry at 200 degrees for 8 – 10 hours for regular sized tomatoes, or 5 – 7 hours for cherry tomatoes. The time will vary depending on the thickness of your tomato slices, and how hot your oven is, so check them after a few hours and keeping checking them every hour after that. If your oven only goes down to 250 degrees, that’s fine. Just don’t cook them as long.

5. The tomatoes are done when you think they’re done – I like mine the consistency of raisins (a little chewy). My mom likes her Romas crispy. Some tomatoes will be done earlier than others, so take them off the tray as they get done, and let the others stay in the oven a little longer if necessary. When you’re finished, they’ll stay in a container at room temperature or in the fridge for a few days, or you can store them in zippered plastic bags in the freezer for months.