Monday, November 28, 2011

Food Allergens in Nonfood Products

by Kelley Lindberg

If only food allergens were just in food.

It’s one thing to have to learn to read ingredients labels on the food you buy at the grocery store. But it’s crazy to realize you have to read labels for just about anything else, too. It’s surprising the places that common allergens, like nuts, eggs, milk, or gluten, will show up.

Last year, we received a cute polar bear soap dispenser as a gift. My son snatched the dispenser for his own bathroom, and I was so busy with other holiday activities I didn’t give it a second thought. Over the next few weeks, we began to notice that my son’s hands were becoming red, dry, and itchy. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong. After trying several lotions, reminding him to thoroughly rinse any soap off his hands when he washed them, and otherwise scratching our heads, I found myself standing in his bathroom one day staring at the polar bear dispenser. I had never checked its ingredients. Come to think of it, I don’t remember if it even came with a list of ingredients. I removed the dispenser from his bathroom, replaced it with some soap I know is safe, and within just a couple of days, his hands cleared up and he was back to normal. There must have been a nut oil, such as almond or macadamia nut, in the soap all along.

This time of year, gifts of soaps, lotions, and perfumes are common, so it’s a good reminder to check all labels. And if you or your child is experiencing allergic rashes you can’t get rid of, look especially hard at all of your soaps, lotions, detergents, and cosmetics.

Here are some of the unexpected places where you might find food allergens, especially nuts, milk, soy, eggs, or wheat:
  • Body lotions, creams, and moisturizers
  • Exfoliants
  • Shampoos and conditioners
  • Soap
  • Shaving creams
  • Makeup and cosmetics
  • Nail polish fast-dry
  • Household cleaners
  • Toothpaste
  • Dentist office toothpaste and polishes
  • Vaccinations and shots (many are egg-based)
  • Medications and vitamins (check both active and inactive ingredients)
  • Bird seed (often contain nuts)
  • Top soil (sometimes contains ground nut shells)
  • Fertilizers (sometimes contain ground nut shells)
  • The sand in sand & water tables (often uses crushed nut shells)
  • Play-Doh (contains wheat)
  • Moon Sand (contains corn starch, but the company states it does NOT contain wheat, gluten, milk, egg, casein, or peanut ingredients.)
  • Paints
  • Adhesives on stamps, envelopes, and stickers you have to lick (many contain wheat)
  • Livestock bedding
  • Pet food and treats
  • Beanbags (including some beanbag chairs, hacky sacks, beanbag-type stuffed animals, and doorway draft blockers, which might contain ground nut shells)
  • Ant traps and mousetraps
  • Potpourris
  • Scented candles
After you’ve lived with food allergies for a while, reading ingredients labels on grocery items becomes second nature. But it’s good to remember to read labels on everything your allergic family member comes into contact with, not just the things they eat.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Allergy-Safe Thanksgiving and Holiday Party Tips

by Kelley Lindberg

Thanksgiving is on our doorstep, with its family get-togethers and that huge traditional meal. And as soon as that’s over, we head right into the rest of the holidays, with office parties, family gatherings, neighbor parties, traditional dinners, non-stop goodies….

Egads. Andy Williams says it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also the foodiest time of the year, which makes it even more stressful for those of us with food allergies.

It’s worse if you have small children. Older kids and adults can understand how to avoid the foods that make them sick, and they can often adjust by limiting what they eat at the party. But for younger children who want to eat everything they see, or who are playing with other young kids who will invariably have food on their hands, it’s a much bigger issue.

So here are a dozen holiday survival tips that I’ve gathered from friends, family, and UFAN members that hopefully will help make this time of year a little easier to manage.

  1. When you are invited to someone’s house for a meal or snacks, tell them immediately about your family’s food issues. Most people really want to keep you or your child happy and safe, and they will try hard to accommodate you. Hostesses don’t want to be surprised by a food allergy at the party, and then feel guilty that they served something unsafe. Tell them up front – trust me, you will really be doing them a favor.
  2. If you’ve got a relative or two who just doesn’t “get it” and insists on bringing their famous nut-topped casserole, make sure you talk to them calmly beforehand about how serious the allergy is, and how skin contact can send you to the ER on Thanksgiving, which isn’t where anyone wants to be. If they still don’t get it, ask another relative to talk to them.
  3. If diplomacy doesn’t work and you know there will be food around that will put your child at risk, remember that this is YOUR life and YOUR child, and you don’t have to do anything dangerous just because someone else thinks a traditional casserole is more important than your child. Don’t be angry or pouty, but explain that although you love them, your young child will be at risk and you’ll be anxious the whole time, so you’re going to skip the huge family gathering and catch up with people later one-on-one, when it’s easier to make sure you don’t end up spending your holiday in the ER. You can tell them that when the child is older, that maybe you can again join the giant food-fest, but for the next few years, you’re going to create your own holiday tradition within your own immediate family, where you know your child is safe. Family gatherings aren’t fun if you feel threatened, bullied, neglected, or ridiculed. Therefore, don’t put yourself or your child in that position. It’s okay to say no. If someone’s feelings get hurt, it’s not your fault. They chose to put your child at risk. You can choose to skip their party.
  4. At the party, ask the other parents to make sure their kids wash their hands after dinner. This actually works out even easier if you talk to the kids – kids seem to “get it” and accommodate their cousins/friends more matter-of-factly than most adults. So talk to the kids, and then remind them after dinner, and they’ll probably be happy to oblige.
  5. Carry some simple safe food with you. If there’s nothing safe at the party, you can always pull it out and let your child eat that. I used to carry safe chicken nuggets (cooked, chopped, and chilled) 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.
  6. 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 the most common allergens like 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.
  7. It goes without saying, but make sure you have your antihistamine and EpiPens with you.
  8. When you first get to the party, check out the food table, ask who made each dish and talk to them about the ingredients, and then decide which foods you feel comfortable with your child eating. Then take the child to the table and calmly explain which items are safe, and which items will make him/her sick. Try to do this before everyone is loading up plates – it will be more chaotic and noisy if you try to have this conversation while people are crowding the table, and your child will sense the stress.
  9. When people say things like, “Gosh, your child’s allergies must be AWFUL! He can’t eat ANYTHING!,” try to turn it into a more positive statement. Those comments can stress kids out and make them suddenly think they’re missing out, when they were perfectly content a few minutes ago. So try to answer with “Actually, it’s not so bad once you learn a few ways to substitute safe ingredients/learn where to shop/read an ingredients label” or whatever works for you. Other fun replies include, “You’d be surprised how much healthier we all are now that we don’t eat all those cream sauces and processed foods.” Or, “It’s made me a much better cook, now. Would you like to try my fruit salad?” The main thing is to make them understand that dealing with food allergies might be an adjustment at first, but once we get our new routines established, it’s manageable, and our children are totally normal. (It’s perfectly acceptable to mention that Aunt Bertha’s green beans with the nut topping would have been so easy to make with safe bread crumbs or crushed potato chips or cracker crumbs instead. In fact, it’s kind of desirable!)
  10. If you can, try to make an announcement before everyone starts filling their plates, asking them please not to use serving utensils in more than one dish. If they dip the sour cream spoon in the safe potatoes, those potatoes aren’t safe any more.
  11. Move dishes with unsafe ingredients to one side of the table, and safe ones on the other side. If it’s not your party, explain to the hostess what you’d like to do, and they’ll be fine with it.
  12. And finally, I have a little trick I like to use called bribery. Before the party, I make a deal with my son that if he can’t eat any of the desserts, he will get a special dessert when we get home. If I was organized enough to make it first, then I show it to him and say, “This is for you after the party, no matter how late it is, as long as you don’t throw a fit over the food at the party.” If I don’t have time to make it first, I promise him we’ll make it together the next day. That deal worked wonders when he was little, and it kept him from trying to sneak unsafe treats.
Do you have more suggestions? Post them in the comments so we can all learn from your experience and ideas. And here’s looking forward to a safe and yummy holiday season!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Honey and Food Allergies

by Kelley Lindberg

Honey seems pretty simple. I’ve never really given it much thought. Here’s the sum of what I generally think about honey: It’s a natural sweetener, it’s made by bees, and beekeepers are crazy folk who don’t mind getting stung.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a small bottle of local honey at an arts and crafts fair, thinking it would be nice to support a local farmer. That started an interesting learning experience.

As I was talking to one of the beekeepers, she told me that eating local honey can help your seasonal pollen allergies (hay fever), because the honey is made using local pollens and therefore helps desensitize you to those pollens. I thought that was sort of interesting and decided to look into that a little more.

When I got home, my friend (who was also at the craft fair) called me and told me that after I left, the same woman had told someone else that their bees spend the winter in an almond orchard. The woman also said that most of the bees in this area (Utah) winter over in almond orchards (presumably in California). My friend knows of my son’s nut allergies, so she immediately called me to tell me this.

So that sent me into research mode.

The first thing I researched is the claim is that some people seem to find relief from seasonal pollen allergies by eating a teaspoon or two of local honey every day for months before pollen season hits. (According to the beekeeper I talked to, you should eat honey made within 20 miles of your home, so that you’re sure of getting the same pollens that you’re exposed to in the air. What a great sales pitch!) The idea is that it’s a form of desensitization, sort of like allergy shots. See “Can You Fight Allergies with Local Honey?” on the Discovery Fit & Health website for more on this concept.

However, the few medical studies I located on this show no conclusive proof for this claim. So while there may be anecdotal stories saying some people find relief, it hasn’t been scientifically proven. If it works for you, great. But don’t expect a miracle. Here is an article from the New York Times about one of these scientific studies: “REALLY? Eating Local Honey Cures Allergies.”

The next thing I discovered is that people can actually be allergic to honey. Honey itself contains proteins, and you can develop an allergic reaction to anything with a protein molecule, so it is possible to develop an allergy to honey. And, like other food allergens, it can sometimes cause anaphylaxis.

Another problem with honey is that it’s made by honey bees carrying pollens back to the hive. That means pollen molecules from all those flowers can be found in the resulting honey. So if you’re having an allergic reaction after eating honey, it is nearly impossible to know if your reaction is caused by the honey itself or the pollen suspended in the honey. The website says some authors of studies recommend that allergists look at honey as a possible allergen when they can’t find another culprit causing food-allergy reactions in a patient.

What I can’t find out is if being allergic to almonds means you’re also allergic to almond flower pollen. I know that if you’re allergic to birch pollen, you might also react to almonds (along with apples, kiwi, pears, peaches, plums, coriander, fennel, parsley, celery, cherries, carrots, and hazelnuts). But the world of cross-reactivity and oral allergy syndrome is complicated. So I’m not sure if almond-allergic people can safely eat almond-grove-produced honey.

So I think the short answer is: be cautious. If you have been having allergic reactions that you can’t identify, there is a possibility, it seems, that you might be getting exposed to your allergen through honey. Honey is an ingredient in a surprisingly large number of commercial food products. If this seems to be happening to you, talk to your allergist about performing an allergy test to the honey you buy.

On the other hand, if you’ve been eating honey just fine with no problems, don’t let this article make you panic! If you’re not having symptoms after eating honey, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to assume that honey is a problem for you. So enjoy your sweet tooth.

Everyone is different, every allergy is different, and everyone’s body chemistry is different. And I’m not a doctor, of course! I just thought I’d share what I found out this week about honey. Investigate this more with your allergist if you suspect honey may be causing problems for you.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Bright Light of Friendship

by Kelley Lindberg

The Italian Renaissance artist Giotto di Bondone had it figured out when he said, “The sincere friends of this world are as ship lights in the stormiest of nights.”

My son started junior high this year, and with that milestone, I’m discovering that I continue to have to learn ways to let go. But I was recently reminded, once again, that just because I can’t always be there to solve problems for him, smooth the way, and anticipate obstacles doesn’t mean he’s on his own.

A couple of weeks ago, he attended his very first dance at the junior high school – a Halloween dance. As if it’s not weird enough seeing your child go to his first dance, I also had to contend with the idea that there would be food there. But I felt a little better about that this time because one of his friends had stepped in to keep him (and other allergic kids) safe.

Since it was a Halloween dance, the student council had planned a creepy activity where you stick your hand in a box labeled “eyeballs” or “brains” or “guts” and gross each other out. The eyeballs are really grapes, the guts are really cooked spaghetti, etc.

But here’s where the value of friendship comes in: one of the girls on the student council has been really good friends with my son (and with his allergic friend) since preschool. So during one of the planning meetings for the dance, she brought up the question of kids in the junior high with food allergies and suggested they make the creepy-feely exhibit allergy-safe.

The teacher and council agreed, a quick email was sent to one of the food-allergic parents for suggestions, and voila! We were involved in the planning and shopping and we could help make the dance allergy-safe. (And it turned out to be a truly awesome Halloween dance!)

I’ve often said that today’s kids are far more allergy-aware and allergy-accepting than grownups. This generation of kids is growing up with food-allergic classmates and teammates, where in my generation, food allergies were all but unheard-of. That makes us grown-ups less inclined to remember about food allergies than our kids, who are around them all the time.

So as my son races head-long into his rebellious teenage years, it’s comforting to know that some of his fellow teenage rebels will also be friends who care enough to keep an eye out for hazards.

Thanks, B, for being there for your allergic friends, and for keeping those lights burning in a stormy sea.