Monday, October 27, 2008

CDC Reports Increased Food Allergies

Last week, food allergies were in the news again. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report saying three million children in the U.S. have food or digestive allergies in 2007, which is an 18% increase in a decade (click here to see the report). But those numbers are a lot smaller than the numbers FAAN, researchers at the University of Chicago, and other food allergy experts have estimated – the usual estimate is about eight million children and four million adults in the U.S., and rate is estimated to have doubled among young children in the last five years.

Even though the CDC’s conservative numbers are much smaller than everyone else’s, they still show the same overall trend – food allergies are increasing rapidly, and we still don’t know why.

This latest finding from the CDC really didn’t add anything to what we know about food allergies. It didn’t say how close various cures may be. It didn’t say why the rate is increasing so drastically. It didn’t offer new ideas on how to prevent food allergies.

But it did spur the news media to discuss food allergies again, like this interesting AP news story on the Allergy and Asthma Source website and this report from Reuters. And this time, because the severity of food allergies is becoming more well-known, some news outlets took the opportunity to report on related stories. For example, ABC News did a report not on the CDC’s findings per se, but on the promising ongoing study on peanut desensitization (click here). They also included a link to an April story they did on school bullying using peanut products as weapons (click here).

Once upon a time, food allergies were considered too obscure to warrant any attention from news outlets. But now, food allergies are prevalent – celebrities talk about their food-allergic children, school districts around the country are tackling the problem head-on, and states are slowly but surely enacting guidelines for schools to use when handling children with food allergies. The U.S. is becoming more aware, and the news media is more willing to address the issue.

This is great news, indeed.

While we crave new advances, cures, and preventions, we are still happy with simply increasing awareness. Simply put, the more people in society who understand how dangerous food allergies are, the safer we food-allergic adults and our food-allergic children will be.

This week has been an encouraging week for us, because of the CDC’s release and the way the news media has responded to it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Teenagers, Rollercoasters, and Other Halloween Fears

Yesterday, my son and I went with some friends to Lagoon, our local amusement park. Each fall the park stays open on weekends for “Frightmares” – most of the rides are open, and they add a few haunted houses and change their musical shows to be sung by vampires or chainsaw-wielding loonies. It’s pretty fun, but yesterday was a beautiful, warm 70-degree day, and the entire state of Utah was there. The lines were so long we didn’t even bother trying to get into the haunted houses – it would have eaten up the few hours we had. So we stuck to the roller coasters and other rides, which suited us just fine.

Usually when we go to Lagoon, my son’s favorite treat is an Icee – one of those frozen slush drinks. We know they’re nut-free, so we don’t usually branch out of our comfort zone. Yesterday, however, the friend we were with wanted to get a snack, and my son decided he wanted something different.

“Please, Mom, can you ask about the pretzels?” he begged.

Grrr. I hate asking 16-year-old food service employees about food ingredients. The blank looks don’t do much for my confidence. And I especially hate trying to sort out the safety of food when there’s a long line forming behind me.

But because I dote on my son, I broke down. Surprisingly, the little kiosk that sold the pretzels didn’t have a line, so I had both 16-year-old employees to myself. “My son’s allergic to nuts,” I began. “Do you know if your pretzels have any nut contamination?”

Blank looks. “Uh…” one said. The future of America, I thought to myself, and shuddered.

I tried again. “Or maybe you have the packaging that the pretzels came in, and I could check the ingredients label?”

That lit a light-bulb. “Oh, maybe…” she said, and rummaged under the counter. She pulled out a giant flattened cardboard box and pushed it up to the small window so I could read it.

The only big-8 allergen it listed was wheat! My son did his little air-guitar victory dance right there in the middle of the sidewalk.

Both 16-year-old employees looked a little bewildered, but they were happy to sell me a pretzel.

So that was my success story for the week. I nudged myself out of my comfort zone and braved a couple of glassy-eyed teenagers, and my son not only lived to tell about it, but he got to add a new treat to his repertoire. And I got to be the hero.

All-in-all, it was a good day. Well, except for the part about sitting in the front row of the Wicked rollercoaster. I’m still trying to forget that.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Trick-or-Treating Safely

Wednesday night, we held our October meeting for the Davis County chapter of the Utah Food Allergy Network. We welcomed a new member to our group – he’d just found out a few days before about his children’s allergies, so we helped him by discussing safe brands of food, suggestions for surviving restaurant outings, and other ways to handle this new world of living with food allergies.

We also talked about Halloween. Trick-or-treating time is only two weeks away! Kids everywhere are choosing their costumes, begging for big orange pumpkins, and dreaming of giant bags of candy.

But for us parents of food allergic kids, Halloween can be stressful. Should we let them go trick-or-treating? Should we have a party instead? Should we stay home, lock the doors, and turn out the lights? What about that giant bag of unsafe candy?!!

In our family, we’ve discovered that the candy is really the least important part of the holiday. The adventure is the best part. Candy seems like the goal (“I’m going to fill this WHOLE bucket!”), but it’s really just the excuse for dressing up, running around the neighborhood in the dark squealing with flashlights, and getting together with friends.

Focus on the adventure, and create your Halloween traditions around the parts of the holiday your kids love best. If they like to trick-or-treat, don’t be afraid of that. There are plenty of things you can do with unsafe candy afterwards, and if the kids know about the rules ahead of time, it will be surprisingly easy to keep them safe while doing it.

Here are some tips for safe trick-or-treating that we talked about at our meeting:

Tip #1: No one eats anything until everyone gets home and the parent reads the label on every piece of candy. That way, no one is eating unidentified foods and having a reaction while you’re out in the dark a block away from home. Make sure the kids agree, understand, and agree again. No one sneaks anything (not even Dad).

Tip #2: If you child is super-sensitive to an ingredient, you might have them wear gloves with their costume, so that any allergenic candy that touches their hand on the way into the bag doesn’t cause a skin reaction. Toss the glove in the wash or in the trash when you get home.

Tipe #3: Unlabeled candy is assumed to be unsafe. Period. The only exceptions are brand-name candies that you are already familiar with and know are safe. (For example, I know Starbursts and Skittles are okay for my son, so I’ll let him keep those.) If there is a type of candy that he’s particularly interested in, I might promise to look for it at the store the next day, and read the ingredients there. But it goes into a separate container until we’ve seen it at the store and verified its safety.

Tip #4: Before you head out on your adventure, talk about what you’re going to do with any candy when the night is over. Here are some ideas:

1) Go trick-or-treating with a friend, and at the end of the night, dump both kids’ candy together, then make two piles – a “safe” pile for the allergic kid, and the other pile for the non-allergic kid. If they both know about this plan beforehand, they are usually more than willing to do this.

2) Buy a bag of safe candy ahead of time, and at the end of the night, let your child “trade” you for all the unsafe candy he brought home.

3) “Buy” the unsafe candy from your child – but establish a price ahead of time, such as a nickel a piece, a dollar a pound, or the whole kit and caboodle for a new DVD, a small toy, a trip to the movies, a night out with Dad, a visit to the dollar store, or other such treat.

4) Look for a dentist or other business in your area that buys candy from kids on the day after Halloween. There’s at least one dentist in Layton that does. The kids get money, and the dentist donates the candy to a children’s hospital, I think.

5) Let the child “donate” the unsafe candy to Mom or Dad, so they can take it to work and share it with their coworkers.

6) Let the child donate the unsafe candy to a local women’s shelter, food bank, homeless shelter, or family of an Iraqi soldier – the soldiers always seem to appreciate candy that they can share with friends or give to Iraqi children.

Don’t let Halloween spook you. There are plenty of ways to celebrate safely – have a party at your house, go trick-or-treating with a plan for replacing the unsafe candy, visit a haunted house or Lagoon’s Frightmares, or rent The Nightmare Before Christmas and snuggle up together in the dark.

An especially fun idea for celebrating is to go to UFAN’s Halloween party on October 25 – it’s a food-free party that every kid will love! Click here for more details!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Hunting the Elusive Safe Candy Corn

It’s that time of year again – candy corn season! I love candy corn. I don’t know why. It’s kind of a ridiculous craving. After all, what’s so appealing about artificially colored bits of sugar? Beats me. But it’s hard for me to get into the autumn spirit without it.

Alas, it’s a bitter-sweet craving, though, because there are no brands of candy corn that are nut-free. (Not to mention they usually contain egg, too.) Three years ago, Target produced their own bags of candy corn that had no nut warnings on them. I was ecstatic! I even had their service desk call their manufacturing plant, who assured me that there was no nut contamination! Finally, my son could try my favorite Halloween treat! He loved them, and I was thrilled!

Unfortunately, it was a short-lived thrill. The next year, they didn’t offer that candy anymore. Oh sure, I finally get to share candy corn with my son, he’s developed a candy-corn sweet tooth like his mother, and now I can’t get them anymore. Great. So now I’m back to compulsively checking the ingredients label of every bag of candy corn I walk by. All brands we’ve found have a nut cross-contamination warning. I even asked my wonderfully helpful contact, Ronni, at Enjoy Life! Foods for help finding some. She asked her contact at the Allergy Grocer, and that contact said that no one is making allergen-safe candy corn yet.


My friend Kim was laughing at her own desperation this weekend, because she discovered a greeting card in the store that contained a small packet of candy corn, and she found herself reading the ingredients label, hoping they were safe. She was already calculating how many of the greeting cards she’d have to buy in order to get a reasonable candy-dish full of the colorful little treats when she found the words in the ingredients label that dashed her hopes. They weren’t safe.

So, what’s a food-allergic mom to do? Hit the internet for a do-it-yourself solution, of course. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to not fear the mixing bowl. This morning, I went on the hunt. Surely someone somewhere has tackled the elusive candy corn and developed their own recipe, right?

Right! I found a vegan recipe for candy corn at “The Urban Housewife” blog. Click here for the recipe. It does call for soy milk, but I'm hoping you can substitute rice milk if you're allergic to soy. I haven’t tried making it yet (I’m going to have to psych myself up for a 15-minute kneading session, since I haven’t worked out in … uh… decades?... and my upper arm muscles bear a striking resemblance to Jell-O), so I can’t vouch for the recipe, but it looks reasonable and the photos look tasty. (Maybe I can just show the photos to my son. “Here, sweetie, don’t they look tasty? Just pretend Mommy made some for you, ‘kay?”)

But if you’re a candy-corn junkie like me, and you’ve got the upper body strength to wrestle these little morsels into shape, this might be just the ticket to a tasty Halloween! And I like the Urban Housewife’s suggestion of hosting a candy-corn-making party so that you can share the kneading duties with friends. What a great idea for a kids’ party activity, too!

So all hope is not lost for us candy corn addicts. Where there’s a sweet-tooth, there’s a way. Enjoy this recipe, and many thanks to the Urban Housewife for sharing her recipe!