Friday, July 31, 2009

Lotions and Potions--May Contain Nuts

For those of you with daughters, especially, look out for "fancy" lotions! The other night I took my girls to a class at the park district to learn how to create their own body lotion and lip gloss. I know, they really need that at ages 6 and 9 but they begged me to go and I caved.

Now, most of the "little girl" type of lotions and cosmetics that I've come across over the years do not contain nut oils. However, that didn't stop me from asking the teacher if any of the products the kids would be using had nuts or nut oils.

She couldn't have been nicer or more convincing--"Oh, no I never use that stuff. Too many kids are allergic."

I left feeling pretty confident and hung out about 5 minutes away for the duration of the 1-hour class (allergy moms tend to stay close) but when I arrived for pick up, my daughter had that "look" that told me something was wrong.

The teacher had used almond scent, flavor and we think, almond oil. Even though my daughter didn't use the scent or flavor (and frankly, it was probably artificial, but how the heck do I know), she couldn't use any of her products since the base they used to make everything was "a mix of oils" according to the teacher. (My daughter asked.) So, who knows what was in there? After the almond scent, I wasn't taking any chances.

Now, maybe this teacher thought I was only concerned about peanuts. (I said all nuts, don't know how much more clear to be!) Unfortunately, almond is one of my daughter's top 5 allergens and in the past, she has broken out when she used cherry/almond lotion at a friend's house. If it got in her eye or mucous membranes, she could have a severe reaction. So, scary stuff!

Whew, boy. I ended up buying safe Bonne Bell stuff for her on the way home and she gave me her products to keep.

What would I have done differently? First of all, avoid lotion and potion making classes unless I personally have inspected each and every product.

Second, I would have corresponded directly with the outside company offering the classes prior to the beginning of the workshop (turns out the company is not affiliated with our local park district).

More educating needs to be done--our park district is clear about their food allergy awareness with regards to cooking classes, but nut oils in cosmetics are not on their radar. Time to start contacting all parties involved.

Just wanted to give a heads-up so that you don't get stuck with the same problem. Has this ever happened to any of you?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

(Not So) Nutty Travel Adventures Part 2: The Best Restaurant Experience

In my last post, I discussed a restaurant "near miss" with pine nuts in pizza. Now it's time to talk about a great restaurant experience with nut allergies. As I've learned over time, a lot of it has to do with your own communication with a restaurant. Still there's something to be said for a restaurant that just gets it. When you find that, it's like the Visa commerical: "Priceless."

My husband found such a place with the Medusa Grill and Bistro in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. From the outside appearance, it couldn't have been a more unlikely place for us to have our optimum dining experience with food allergies. The restaurant is housed in an old store front off the main street of this resort town. When it comes to dining out with food allergies, I tend to trust modern and updated--I figure they'll be more aware. (And as my pine nut story illustrates, sometimes that's wrong!)

Once we stepped inside, I could see that the restaurant was casual but upscale with a small but comfortable dining room, bar, etc. It had a great atmosphere. It wasn't a family restaurant in the sense of having a kids menu and all of that, but other kids were there, so: so far, so good.

When my husband called to make the reservation, he had described our daughter's allergies and had asked about the menu. As soon as we were seated, the waiter came over and before I could tell him about our daughter he said "I know we have a nut allergy at this table. Let me tell you what you may want to avoid." He gave us a short list--maybe like 2 things. He spent a few minutes answering questions and just trying to make us feel comfortable that they could handle our dietary restrictions.

That is the first time I've ever had waitstaff take the reigns with the food allergies. I could see my daughter visibly relax after the initial "sit-down" and usually that's not the case.

The food was outstanding, but the best part was the feeling of confidence we all had. The restaurant took some of the pressure off of us by understanding nut allergies and acting natural about it while still showing concern. I didn't feel (as I sometimes have) like we were putting them to any trouble or added stress. If we were, they didn't show it.

My daughter even got dessert--Bananas Foster, which being unbaked and nut-free, we allowed her eat. She was in heaven--dessert is generally off-limits in restaurants for her because of the cross-contact concerns. All the desserts that evening were nut-free, so we let her go to town.

It was a great family meal and we had so much fun. The best part was when my daughter said that it was "the best restaurant experience of my life."

On our way out, we thanked the waiter for his great handling of our situation and he told us that they deal with nut allergies and other food allergies all the time. In fact, he said 4 out of 5 families they had booked in the last few days had kids with food allergies!!!

This was not a four-star restaurant in Manhattan or Paris--it was a tiny restaurant in a Wisconsin resort town. But they had great food and they handled our food allergy needs like pros. How simple it was! Know the ingredients, acknowledge your guests' needs, that's all it takes. I can't wait to go back there.

Granted, we did call ahead (which I highly recommend) to discuss our situation, but that was pretty much it. I'm sure making the restaurant aware in advance was a huge part of why it went so well.

On another note: As a follow up to my previous post, the Madison, Wisconsin cafe where we had the close call just emailed me to let me know that they were going to change their print menu this week to reflect the fact that their cheese pizza contains pine nuts. They also apologized profusely for the mix up. I feel great that I spoke up and hopefully prevented someone else from their own "near miss."

When dining out with food allergies goes smoothly, it's always a great feeling. Every family likes to go out to a restaurant for a treat. Still, I'm looking forward to cooking at home for awhile!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Nutty Travel Adventures Part 1--Pine Nut Pizza

I'm back from my Wisconsin vacation and I have stories to tell about our family travels with nut allergies. Most of the stories are good--in fact, most are really good--so I'm going to get the "bad" one out of the way in the hopes that we can all be a little wiser for the experience my family had.

One of the places we visited in Wisconsin was Madison which is the state capitol, home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a beautiful, totally cool and fun city in its own right. I attended the UW and it's always fun to go back there with the family.

We stayed in a hotel with a great view of one of the town's two major lakes. Connected to the hotel is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed, 6-story structure that houses, among other things, a stunning terrace that looks over the lake and also the capitol. We were so swept away by the view and the general vibe of the place (it hosted a free reggae concert on Wednesday night) that we decided to try the newly opened cafe that is located on the rooftop terrace.

The restaurant had a printed menu that I read carefully. It had basic stuff like Chicago-style hot dogs, individual pizzas, sandwiches and salads. My oldest daughter (the one with the nut allergy) really wanted to eat there. The views are amazing, so I didn't blame her. It looked like the menu was nut-free, so my husband walked down there to speak with the staff. He even got to talk to the chef, always a good thing. However, in this case, that wasn't the end of the story.

My husband asked about nut oils, nuts in the foods, etc. He was assured that they used only "canola oil" and that there should not be a problem with nuts in the food.

We felt pretty good so we ordered our daughters small pizzas--the menu said they contained tomatoes, basil and cheese.

Except, when my daughter was served the pizza, she took a bite and got a funny look on her face. "Something's wrong with this, Mom" she said. She dug into her pizza and handed me an object. "Mom, what's this?"

It was a pine nut. Turns out, the pizza was loaded with 'em. And yes, she had taken a bite, which she then spit out. And then she got upset. Tears, worries. "Will I be OK?" she kept asking me.

This is how it is with food allergies. One minute you're looking at a lake in the sun, the next minute you're checking your child for signs of anaphylaxis. Did I feel like a total jerk having not visually inspected the pizza before my child took a bite? Yes! I'm usually extremely careful and I probably felt pretty confident after all of the questions we'd asked. So this pine nut situation was a big, ugly surprise.

I figured I would have plenty of time to beat myself up later about how I should or shouldn't have handled the food order, so I focused on my daughter. She asked to go to the bathroom because she had spit her food out in front of the other diners and was embarrassed.

I took her aside and assured her I'd take care of her no matter what happened. Let me tell you, that was the five to ten longest minutes of my life. I had no idea if she had swallowed a pine nut or not. She wasn't sure if she'd swallowed any of her pizza before she realized what was in it. From past experience, I knew she'd react pretty much immediately if she was going to react at all, but I wanted to make sure I kept a close eye on her. Also, I had no clue if pine nuts would do anything to her. They're on her list of foods to avoid that our doctor gave us and they are officially a nut, so they had the potential of causing a reaction. Pine nuts are not in her "top 5" list of nuts that can cause her most severe reactions, but sometimes the body can confuse one type of tree nut with another and boom, there you go. Reaction.

Pretty soon it became clear that my daughter wasn't going to have a reaction. No hives, no swelling, no trouble breathing, no vomiting. I took her back to the table (my husband had already given the pizza back to the staff explaining why she couldn't eat it) and we got the heck out of there. The waitstaff did not seem like the ones to accuse and the chef was nowhere to be seen. Since the "pine nut incident" as we're calling it around here, I wrote to the restaurant and told them the story. I also asked them to be very careful about what they put into their menu. And I told them that pine nuts are indeed a nut. My husband's theory is that some people don't think that they are and that could be what happened here.

We learned that the terms you use when describing any type of food allergy or intolerance are crucial. Make sure you list all the things to avoid--maybe someone doesn't know what tree nuts are or what gluten is or the different terms for milk protein. Spell it out for them. Also, please be suspicious of "gourmet pizzas." They are bound to include pesto or pine nuts--stick with the simple stuff.

All's well that ended well here, and my darling daughter and I ended the evening dancing at the free reggae concert. I was so grateful she had been able to bounce back from the bad experience and I was also grateful that I wasn't sitting next to her in a hospital bed or worse. I was really, really rattled, though I tried not to show it. My husband felt awful, too. My daughter picked up on it and assured him that she didn't blame him and that she knew we had both tried to get the info on the food. Yep, she's that sweet. And I think that she was relieved as well.

Since she didn't have a reaction, I think this was probably a good experience for her in the sense that she learned to trust her instincts on a food. She told me later that the pizza didn't "smell right" to her and the first taste was just wrong. I told her to always honor that instinct in her life--even if she has to spit out the food, order a completely new meal or leave the restaurant. She promised that she would.

It just goes to show you that no matter how aware you are as parents or caregivers--others are probably barely aware or moderately aware. You've got to be polite but firm and very, very communicative. You'll be so glad that you were.

With that said, my next dining out/travel story is a great one--a Lake Geneva, Wisconsin restaurant dealt with our child's dietary restrictions like pros. They blew us away with their concern for our child's safety and their overall professionalism--not to mention the delicious meal. I'll save that story for later in the week.

It's good to be back home with both kids happy, healthy and safe. My daughter wonders why I keep giving her all the extra hugs--but you all know why, right?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Check Out Online Menus Before You Eat!

I was doing a little restaurant research for our upcoming vacation destination and I decided to check out a casual dining chain, Houlihan's, to see what the menu looked like.

Houlihan's site requires you to specify a location with regard to menu and I did so. And that's when I saw it: the dreaded nut allergy warning (written in tiny type)--"We use nut oils and nuts in many of our menu items. Please alert your server if you have a nut allergy."

My first, wise-cracking thought was "Please alert your server--so they can have the ambulance ready!" I mean, come on. That doesn't sound like a good choice for the nut-allergic. All wise-cracking aside, though, I'm glad that the restaurant put the warning on the menu because my family will be sure to avoid that place. Imagine if we walked in, starving, and were seated, etc. and then Bam! We read the menu warning and have to leave. That can be jarring for the allergic family members and frustrating for all of us. So thank you, Houlihan's for the heads up.

That said--if you are so aware of nut allergies that you think to post this warning--how about cutting down on the nut oils? Nuts in entrees, apps and desserts are difficult to avoid and many people enjoy them as an ingredient, that's apparent from most American menus. However, nut oils I don't get. Why use them? Diners can't tell the difference. I know that peanut oil has a high smoking point, so cooks like it for fried items, but if MacDonald's doesn't need to use peanut oil, neither do you. And isn't it more expensive? Nut oils are also used in salads, but I still don't see the need. With all the talk of trans fats, etc., I hope these oils are on their way out.

My reason for the story is this: it pays to check out menus/restaurants beforehand anytime, but especially while traveling when you may have more limited choices. I would never have guessed that this casual, American restaurant was a hotbed of "nutty" menu items and the online research really was eye-opening.

Also, depending on where you are, the menu items for a franchise or chain can be different. One reader of this blogger alerted me recently that the Papa John's Pizza franchise where she lives serves a nut-filled dessert. This dessert is baked in the same oven as the pizza, so of course this reader wanted me to know about cross-contact risk. When I checked Papa John's web site, they do not say that they serve desserts with nuts, only an item containing Nestle chocolate and according to PJ's site, a chocolate product that is NOT processed on the same lines with peanuts/tree nuts. In fact, the site makes it look as if their food is safe for nut allergies--and I'm not saying that it's not. Just ask them before you place your order--it can't hurt!

So what's my point? If you want to eat at a franchise, I would say their web site is a pretty good starting point. But things can change, or the franchise owner near you may do things a little differently, so always ask the individual restaurant about ingredients.

I'll let you know how we make out on our trip next week!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Twitter Party on July 23 Hosted by Food Allergy Buzz and Best Allergy Sites!

If you haven't heard already, I wanted to let you know about a Twitter Party hosted by Jennifer B of Food Allergy Buzz ( Ruth Smith of Best Allergy Sites (

The party is July 23 and this time the theme is Back to School. There will be lots of expert panelists to answer your questions and even prizes! Click here to learn more, including how to log in and be part of the discussion on Twitter.

Back to school issues are a huge deal for food allergy families so I hope you'll check it out! I wish I'd had this community of food allergy folks to consult and commiserate with when my daughter began kindergarten, so get your questions ready. It should be enlightening...and empowering!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Goin' Coconuts!

A lot of you have had questions for me about coconut products, particularly because coconut oil shows up in so many foods such as popcorn, ice cream and many other foods.

Because of the name, many people believe that coconuts are nuts. In fact, they are a fruit. So if you have an allergy to nuts, you don't necessarily have to avoid coconut. For some odd reason, the FDA has recently put coconut under the umbrella of "tree nut." This is not helping with the confusion people have about nut allergies.

Big medical disclaimer: you can be allergic to coconut. If your doctor has advised you to avoid coconut, please do so. You can be allergic to fruits. So ask your allergist before giving an allergic person any food.

OK, with that out of the way: my message is that coconut is not a tree nut. If you or your tree nut/peanut-allergic child enjoy the taste and you don't have a fruit allergy, you can eat products that contain coconut or coconut oil--provided they don't also have a nut allergy warning or if there are other cross-contact concerns (such as the food was made lines with nut-containing foods, etc.).

My kids and I like the taste of coconut--in cookies, cakes and sorbets. Also, coconut cream or milk can be a great substitute for dairy in recipes, if you have a dairy allergy. Click this link for a blog entry I posted recently that contains a dairy-free, nut-free ice cream recipe using coconut cream.

A lot of you may not like coconut, but since people with nut allergies already have several limitations on what we can eat, I thought that it's nice to expand the list a little bit.

As always, if you're unsure of what's safe for your particular situation, ask your allergist!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Latest Food Allergies Blog Carnival plus a Wilton Update

Check out the latest food allergy blog carnival at Go Dairy Free. It has lots of great entries from food allergy bloggers about all types of topics, from recipes to the social aspects of living with food allergies. Also featured is my post Food Allergies and Restaurant Anxiety.

And now, onto another topic. I recently posted about Wilton (the cake decorating/supplies company) and how I was going to ask them to create a "nut-free" line of products such as icings, cake decor, etc. I sent them a very nice, positive e-mail stating that I'm a Wilton user and fan, but that they are basically missing an untapped market by offering so many products with nut allergy (and other food allergy) warnings. I asked if they could provide dedicated, allergy-safe products to their growing audience and promised them customer loyalty if they did so. Right?? We would all be thrilled.

I heard back from a nutritionist at Wilton today--unfortunately, they did not address this question. I received a rather defensive statement outlining their allergy labeling practices and how they go "above and beyond what the FDA requires." OK, that's wonderful, but my question about offering dedicated allergy-free products went unanswered. I wrote another e-mail and will hopefully be forwarded to Products and Marketing. If not, I'll contact them again.

Interestingly, they said they do thorough cleaning, keep certain lines separate, etc. But according to this nutritionist, Wilton will put a nut allergy warning on a food even if there is a "slim to none chance it became exposed to peanuts or tree nuts." I don't know what this means. Did one of the plant workers eat a Reese's in the last 6 weeks? Or are peanuts being processed near other foods that don't contain nuts, making it possible one could get mixed up into those otherwise "nut-free" foods? Their explanation still leaves me unclear on that one.

But in any case, that's irrelevant. I asked them if they'd consider creating dedicated, nut-free products--they answered a completely different question, not the one I asked. I have to say, they have been the most "circular" and confusing in their responses, more so than any other company I've contacted. And I've asked questions of a lot of food companies by now--believe me. They also gave me a wishy-washy answer about vanilla extract a few months ago. Ask them a straightforward question--you get an answer filled with mixed messages.

Too bad--I hope some company has the foresight to create dedicated allergy-free cake/cookie decorating products. Something tells me that it won't be Wilton.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Food Allergy Label Lessons Learned

I hope everybody had a safe, happy holiday! I wanted to share some experiences that we had over the holiday so that you can benefit from them and not make the same mistakes. :)

When we're out and about, we basically stick to popsicles because those seem to be safest for our daughter's nut allergy. Well, the other day at the pool concession stand (she and her sister like to head over there on their own--it's their new thing) my daughter attempted to buy a "Power Puff Girls" character ice cream bar. It had a nut allergy warning, so after reading the label (Yes! She's so good, she always checks) she returned it to the very nice boy working at the stand and exchanged it for a "Bomb Pop" (you know, those red, white and blue popsicles that are sold in the summertime.) Her sister even exchanged her ice cream bar, even though she doesn't have allergies, just to be in solidarity with her sister. I had nothing to do with that exchange between the two of them and I have to admit, it warmed my heart.

It looks like most "character" ice cream bars have peanut allergy warnings, so I would advise steering your kids away from those. It's a lot better if they know those are off limits from the beginning. Because they generally include candy for the "eyes" this makes them more likely to have nut allergen warnings.

And, speaking of the Bomb Pop--that one had a "contains milk protein" allergy warning. Just in case you're looking out for both dairy and nut allergies, you should be aware of it.

In addition, my husband went to Trader Joe's and bought blue corn tortilla chips for a 4th of July party at our house. He is usually a very thorough label reader so I didn't want to "back seat drive" and remind him about reading labels. Guess what? He wound up with tortilla chips that had allergy warnings for a bunch of foods, including tree nuts and peanuts. Oh well--that reinforces the need to remind everybody who is shopping for your child to check the labels. I know that Trader Joe's does have chips that are safe for nut allergies, but if you've been to TJ you know that they have about 20 brands of chips. Very confusing, even for the old nut allergy veterans among us (like my DH)!

I bring all of this up not to make us look like fools but to let you know that we all make these mistakes with food and that it's completely appropriate to be a compulsive label-reader.

In the end, it all turned out well. And we learned a few things. Not a bad weekend!

Friday, July 3, 2009

4th of July Weekend Travel Tips from FAAN

I hope everybody is gearing up to enjoy a great 4th, but since that means travel for many of us, I wanted to share these great tips I just got from FAAN.

First of all, if you're traveling by car, try to start the trip after a meal: It saves time, worry and stress! Take along more medication than you think you'll need and don't forget a copy of your Food Allergy Action Plan. You can download a template here. You'll also want to pack plenty of safe food options--you never know what a road trip can involve so be prepared!

Also, if you are traveling by airplane, check out FAAN's air travel link. Don't forget to remind the airline about your family's food allergy needs and don't forget to keep the EpiPen with you in the cabin.

In fact, as FAAN suggests, always remember to keep your EpiPen with you at all times.

My personal tip: Don't risk a food because you don't want to "offend" someone. If you're unsure that the food is safe--just skip it. Bring your own safe dessert or treat for your child and be sure to teach your child to decline a food politely. It's a lot more fun to stay at the backyard BBQ and avoid a potentially unsafe food than to take a trip to the ER on a holiday weekend!

Have a great time everybody!