Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Food Allergy News: Shea Nut and Tree Nut Allergy

I get a lot of questions about shea nut and shea nut butter. This is actually not a "true" tree nut but it does raise a lot of questions for people with tree nut allergies, much like coconut does.

Shea (nut) butter turns up in some candies and other foods. Shea is listed as a possible oil in Hershey's Candy Cane Kisses, for example and it used to be an ingredient in Candy Corn Kisses from Hershey. My daughter has not had a problem with shea and has eaten the above candies without incident, but since this is a fairly new ingredient to foods, we are being cautious with it.

I thought I would share this article from Allergic Living magazine that references recent studies finding that shea nut appears to be safe for nut allergies.

Of course, before serving any questionable food to a tree nut-allergic person, always check with your allergist.

Shea nut butter turns up with increasing frequency as an ingredient in lotions, shampoos and body washes. I've had a lot of concern from blog readers about this. Since lotions contain many other chemicals besides shea, if you suspect shea allergy, don't self-diagnose. Check with an allergist--it could be shea or some other ingredient causing the problem.

Click here for Allergic Living's full story on shea nuts.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas from The Nut-Free Mom!

I wanted to take this time to say Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate! As the year comes to a close, I can reflect on the many people I've either met through this blog or in person who are working hard to make life better and safer for people with food allergies. Thanks to all of you! Your efforts make a difference.

I also wanted to give a word of hope to parents who may be dealing with nut allergies for the first time this year. It does get easier. And you're definitely not alone. I hope you'll visit this blog often and share your concerns if you have them.

I also hope that everyone takes this opportunity to relax and enjoy time with friends and family. Food allergies can make holidays a little more difficult, but holidays aren't only about food. Serve your family some "safe" foods, bring them along to the parties with you and have fun with the spirit of the season!

If you're heading out to parties and are looking for some food allergy navigation tips, check out my holiday party guidelines. The title says "Thanksgiving" but my tips work for any holiday party.

Also, if you feel like any last-minute baking (as I'm doing today), I've heard some great feedback on my Nut-Free Snowball Cookies and Super-Easy Christmas Cookies, so check out those recipes if you wish!

To all of you, everywhere, Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Big Food Allergy News: FAAMA Passed Into Law!!!

I received the following e-mail from Julia Bradsher, CEO of FAAN. This news couldn't have come at a better time, especially considering my previous post about a tragic food allergy death at a Chicago school. Read on and let's celebrate. FAAMA will save lives.

Dear Jenny,

We did it!!

Five years after the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act (FAAMA) was introduced in the U.S. Congress, FAAMA has finally passed as part of the food safety bill and is expected to be signed into law by President Obama.

FAAMA will lead to the much-needed creation of national food allergy management guidelines for schools. While these guidelines are voluntary, they will provide schools without existing food allergy management policies with a valuable resource.

These policies are critical to help educate school officials about food allergy, a potentially life-threatening medical condition, and help them implement emergency plans in case a severe reaction occurs on school grounds. Studies have shown that up to 25% percent of reactions in school occur in children with previously undiagnosed food allergy.

Earlier this month, a fatal reaction occurred at a school in Chicago, allegedly due to food that was consumed at school.

The guidelines will also benefit parents of children with food allergies, who are looking for a vetted resource to help them safely manage their child’s food allergies in the school setting.

Written largely by FAAN, the national guidelines will not supersede existing or pending state laws or guidelines concerning schools and food allergies. The FAAMA guidelines should be seen as a complement to existing guidelines created as a result of other legislation.

This tremendous accomplishment was made possible by the thousands of individuals who advocated for this legislation and many elected representatives who co-sponsored FAAMA over the years, most notably Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), whose daughter has a food allergy, and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has a grandchild with a food allergy.

We celebrate the passage of FAAMA today, but our work is not done. FAAN will continue to work diligently to raise awareness, educate others, and advocate on behalf of the millions of Americans with food allergy and anaphylaxis.

Thank you all for your support!

Julia Bradsher

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tragic Food Allergy Death Points to Desperate Lack of Education

Everybody has been talking about this story today and I really need to chime in. I first heard of it on The Food Allergy Mama's Facebook page. Then, today, I read the story in the Chicago Tribune and also got flooded with e-mails.

I feel sick about this. This did not need to happen. This poor girl's tragic death could have been prevented. Why did this happen?

The entire facts of the case aren't yet clear and I'm only discussing what I read in the news story. More may be revealed later. Mention was made of Chinese food served in the classroom which the girl apparently ate. Epinephrine autoinjectors, or lack of them, were also mentioned. It's not clear if this student had a food allergy emergency plan or not.

The news story tells how the school ordered in Chinese food after being assured, allegedly, by the restaurant, that the food would be peanut-free. OK, let's just stop right there. Chinese restaurant food can NEVER be safe for a peanut-allergic person. If you know anything about how Chinese food is prepared or its key ingredients, you know that it is off-limits to peanut-allergic people for good reason. Cross-contact will present problems even if actual ingredients do not. In fact, on the list our allergist gave us, Chinese and Asian foods are at the top of the "do not eat" list.

Food allergy education can save lives. For example: "peanut-free" does NOT mean "safe for life-threateningly allergic to peanuts." To many, many people, "peanut-free" means, simply, that the recipe does not contain actual peanuts. Maybe a restaurant, in good faith, says "peanut-free" when they don't understand that what the customer was really asking for was "safe for peanut allergy" or "no risk of cross-contact." Being clear is key. Please, please, be clear.

I've learned never to assume that restaurant staff understand what you mean. That's why you ask for the chef or manager about the meal and present your food allergy cards to the wait staff. Check out FAAN for these downloadable cards.

This story just makes me so fed up. It's not only schools or restaurants that need education, it's the general public. Parents of the school where this child died are now talking "peanut ban." But what good is a peanut ban if people are ordering in supposedly "peanut-free" Chinese food and then serving it to a peanut-allergic girl??? No good at all. Education is key. Education will save lives.

This could have been your child. This could have been my daughter. For all of you heading out to holiday celebrations, please take something positive from this horrific incident and stand firm about your child's food restrictions. Food allergies can be fatal, and it's tragic. Even more tragic is that a fatal reaction could have been prevented with simple knowledge.

My heart goes out to this family in their loss.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Peanut Allergy Holiday Tips from SunButter...and Me!

Just wanted to share this great link from SunButter that features some holiday tips for kids with food allergies including some of mine and a link to my blog.

Hey, SunButter, I'm glad you like my advice because we LOVE SunButter around here. It's our new favorite snack and so much less fat than peanut butter besides being safe for my allergic daughter. You guys rock!

I was thinking about other suggestions that I have for parents based on my experiences and here's a big one: go with your instincts and never let your guard down.

Sometimes the holiday foods presented to us are overwhelming. There are so many high-risk for nut allergy items that it can seem tempting to say "what the heck, it's Christmas, just eat it." I understand that but don't do it. Too many reactions occur because someone had "just one cookie" or piece of candy.

Instead, know that you will be faced with tempting sweets and off-limit foods and be prepared. Bring your own safe cookies (but keep them on their own tray) or whatever item is your child's favorite. That way, you can whip out that safe choice when your child is faced with something they really shouldn't eat.

SunButter included one of my favorite tips which is "Don't apologize for the allergy." Many parents, especially families where the allergy diagnosis is fairly new, can be made to feel like they are being overzealous or are raining on everyone's parade because they have to restrict the foods their child eats and/or is exposed to.

It's not your fault and your job as a parent is to make sure your child's health is protected. So don't cave, don't apologize and most importantly, stay positive. A cheerful, firm attitude really does work when it comes to food allergies.

Thanks again to SunButter for providing a great product and for supporting my blog!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas with a Peanut Allergy? 'Tis the Season to Be Nutty

It's time for my yearly rant about tree nuts and peanuts flying at you from all directions at the winter holidays! Enjoy and feel free to add your Grinchy gripes. It will make you feel better. ;)

Six year ago when I discovered that my oldest daughter had a life-threatening nut allergy, I wasn't fully aware of the impact that this diagnosis would have on the holidays. But I should have been. Let's face it — a big part of any holiday is the food. Add nut allergies to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a stressful situation.

It seems to me that the world becomes increasingly more infatuated with nut-containing recipes starting around Halloween and continuing until after the New Year. Food magazines, TV news segments and newspaper cooking sections are filled with nuts, nuts and more nuts. There appears to be a primal desire to stock up on foods that highlight walnuts, pecans, cashews and almonds, almost like a squirrel stocks up on acorns for the winter.

For example, as I flipped through current issues of my favorite magazines, I found recipes for caramel nut cheesecake, Roquefort salad with walnuts, kugel with pecans, green beans with almonds, broccoli casserole with pecans, peanut butter blossom cookies, bourbon balls with crushed walnuts, candied nuts and pecan-laced turkey stuffing. You get the picture. Also, a homemade front-door holiday wreath devised of walnut shells.

Yes, nuts are everywhere you look this time of year (that's not even including our nearest and dearest) and as the walnut wreath proves, sometimes tree nuts greet you at the door even before the hosts do.

Because of the recipes and nutty crafts floating around, holiday parties and dinners pose major challenges to the nut-allergic. Unfortunately those two warhorses of holiday entertaining — buffets and potlucks — can be a health hazard. Standard buffet fare such as complicated casseroles with 20 ingredients or cookie recipes with crushed pecans are off-limits. Sometimes the food doesn't even have to contain nuts but has come into contact with them. If we don't know for sure about a particular food, our daughter doesn't get to eat it, so often she doesn't get to partake of holiday treats made outside of our home.

Food isn't the only thing that's dicey about holiday dining with nut allergies. Since food is so deeply rooted in tradition and emotion, the potential to either offend or be offended during what I’ve come to view as “the nutty season” is endless. It’s almost inevitable that a nut-allergic family will encounter a friend or relative who just doesn’t believe that food allergies are real or who are certain that "just one bite" of their treasured recipe won't hurt, when in fact, it could. People who wouldn’t dream of questioning a child’s diabetes or asthma diagnosis may peg you as a “nut” for asking about every ingredient in a dish, or label your child as "picky" if you are obliged to bring them a separate meal for safety's sake.

For the most part, my family is able to focus on the fun aspects of holiday celebrations and not the food gaffes. We've been fortunate to have a lot of support from family members and friends. Plus, my husband and I enjoy entertaining at our home, which helps eliminate the need for others to concern themselves with the menu. When we do attend a holiday party, I'm always willing to whip up a nut-free side dish or decorated cupcakes.

Perhaps because an individual with food allergies is denied so many treats at this time of year, food allergies teach you how to appreciate the most important things in life. Family, friends and the good fortune to be eating a delicious dinner at all come to mind. I've also found that my daughter is unusually compassionate to other people...maybe because she has her own struggles,she is always quick to support kids who deal with difficulties of their own.

Despite the fact that we sometimes feels as if "Life is a bowl of cashews," it's wonderful to be present at the table with those we love most. And even though my family has to be more cautious about what foods we place on that on that table, "the nutty season" is worth it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New Food Allergy Guidelines: Will They Make a Parent's Job Easier??

A lot of you may have seen these recent news stories about new food allergy guidelines from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. For those of you who didn't see this info or who want links, I've provided them below.

About a week and a half ago, the NIAID released new guidelines for diagnosing food allergies. These guidelines are intended to be especially helpful for parents whose children have been diagnosed with multiple food allergies and who may have very restricted diets.

Also, here's what the Wall Street Journal had to say about the new guidelines.

Personally, my family's life is not affected much by these new guidelines because my daughter has not only been diagnosed via blood and skin testing, she has also experienced more than one reaction to nuts and peanuts. We know the allergy is there and since one reaction was about a year ago, she's not a candidate for new tests at this time. In other words, her allergy is hanging on, at least for now.

However, the new guidelines are so encouraging to so many because up until now, not everyone was being diagnosed in the same way. This led to confusion, misdiagnosis and possibly unnecessary limited diets--which we also know means limited lifestyle. Also, food allergies can fluctuate and change over time. This is also addressed by the new guidelines.

As always, please get advice from a board-certified allergist or pediatrician before changing anything you are doing with regard to your child's allergies.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Food Allergy Resources Make Great Holiday Gifts!

For those of you looking for holiday gifts for the allergic people in your life, (or if you would like to drop a few hints for your spouse or family), here's a short list of some of the best food allergy books/magazines out there.

I've had the pleasure of meeting all of the authors below, either in person or online, and I can tell you that they are completely devoted to helping food-allergic people and their families enjoy a better quality of life.

The Food Allergy Mama's Baking Book by Kelly Rudnicki. Just awesome. Kelly provides delicious recipes for things like apple doughnuts, birthday cakes and a myriad of cookies and quick breads that are egg-free, dairy-free and nut-free. If you ever thought it was impossible to bake without eggs, dairy or nuts, Kelly will set you straight! Your kids will be the envy of their friends with these yummy treats. Full-color photos accompany each recipe. You also get to see Kelly's cute kids hard at work baking! You will love this book! Check Kelly's website to order. I've also found this book available at my local Borders book store.

The Allergen-Free Baker's Handbook by Cybele Pascal. Martha Stewart featured this book as one of the best baking books out there and once you flip through it you will see why. This book is so gorgeous and filled with delicious-looking photos that make you want to roll your sleeves up and get baking. Cybele offers dozens of recipes free of all top 8 food allergens and gluten. A simply beautiful book! You can visit Cybele's website to order or visit your local bookstore. I got mine at Borders!

Food Allergy Books by Linda Coss. Linda Coss is a pioneer of food allergy parenting and cooking. She has wonderful cookbooks as well as a book of advice on how to live with food allergies. Her cookbooks are also free of dairy, egg, peanut and tree nut and she has some really awesome family-friendly meals. Don't miss her books! You can order them by visiting her website.

Enjoy Life Foods: Cupcakes and Sweet Treats for Everyone! and Enjoy Life Foods: Cookies for Everyone! Enjoy Life Foods offers great baking ingredients free of the top 8 allergens and then some. They bring their delicious approach to allergy-friendly eating to you with two beautiful books that will solve your allergy-free baking problems. I've found these at my local bookstore but you can order them from their web site, too.

Allergic Living magazine. I highly recommend a subscription to this amazing lifestyle guide. Besides tackling food allergies with wit, wisdom and tons of practical advice, editor Gwen Smith and her talented team also address seasonal and environmental allergies. Published 6 times a year, you will wonder how you ever got along without Allergic Living. Visit the website for subscription details.

I hope you'll check out each of the resources above. And thanks to the talented people behind them. You make a difference!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Peanut Allergies, Nut Allergies and Vanilla Extract

I'm running the following post again, for those who may have missed it.

With the holiday baking season upon us, I've had several e-mails about the safety of vanilla and other baking extracts. This is obviously a big concern for those of us who bake nut-free because most companies also produce almond extract.

A word about almond extract--you'll notice that some of these brands say that it is not produced from actual almonds, but from the pit of certain fruits.

Please be advised that apricots and peaches can be cross-reactive for tree nut-allergic people because these fruits are in the almond family.

I personally recommend avoiding almond extract if you are dealing with almond and other tree nut allergies. Also, with some of the more "gourmet" brands, you may be dealing with pure almond and also cross-contact issues on the production lines. Why even go there? I am uncomfortable using "almond" anything for someone with an almond allergy. Of course, please check with your allergist if you have more questions about this.

Now, back to vanilla. I contacted three of the biggest manufacturers of vanilla extract and baking products: McCormick, Nielsen-Massey and Wilton. I'm very happy to report that 2 out of 3 of them don't even use "real" almond for their almond extract. Wilton, as most of you may have discovered already, is the most challenging, since they do have peanuts and tree nuts in their facility, even though some items are not sharing production lines. If you'd like to use their products, I'd say it's your call to make. Also, you may have to do some digging about each individual product. Their response below contains more info.

Here's what each company had to say in response to my e-mails inquiring about the safety of their extracts.

McCormick: "McCormick and Co. does not use peanuts or tree nuts in any of our facilities. The Oil of Bitter Almond used in our Pure Almond Extract is extracted from apricot kernels, not the almond itself."

Note: I asked specifically about extracts in my e-mail. McCormick now makes many spice blends beyond their basic extracts and spices; they make other products as well. If you have concerns about other products, give them a call.

Nielsen-Massey: "All of our products are nut free. We do not process anything with tree nuts in our facility. In fact our Almond Extract is actually made from bitter almond oil which comes from stone fruit pits such as peaches. Please be assured that all of our products are safe from nut allergens."

Wilton: "I have attached a link from our website that displays our vanilla extracts and the following allergy information:

No Peanuts/treenuts in the product but there are peanuts/treenuts present in the facility

No Peanuts/Treenuts in the product but there are peanuts/treenuts present in the facility

As far as our sprinkles and decorations are concerned, because we are very specific when it comes to food allergies, if you would kindly provide me with a few stock numbers from our website of some decorations that you are interested in because we want to make sure that we provide you with the correct information."

Consumers, please note: It is up to you to check each product you use. In fact, as practices change, it is a good idea to check labels or call for info from time to time. I do this with my favorite products as well as new ones, and I suggest you do the same for your own information and peace of mind. Thank you!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Peanut-Free, Tree Nut-Free Holiday the Supermarket!!

While doing my errands, Christmas shopping and what have you at SuperTarget and Jewel, I've been researching supermarket-available holiday candy that is safe for people with peanut and tree nut allergies. Besides reading labels, I've called some of these companies for more info. If you have any questions about the following list, I suggest you do the same.

Still, with all the things we have to do, it's nice to know that we can pop out to the supermarket and buy candy that's safe for our nut-allergic kids or for a kid-centric holiday party. I also hope that I've provided a great list to pass on to friends and relatives.

A couple of things before I get to the list: because nut allergies are what I deal with, that is what I focused on here. The best sources for multiple food allergies are generally things available over the Internet such as Divvies. However, a few candy brands found at the supermarket offer holiday treats free of many allergens.

Beware of chocolate. Lots of chocolate is not safe for nut allergies. Regarding Hershey's brand, read the labels. They will list if any allergens are present on production lines and will list allergy warnings if there is any cross-contact risk for particular items. If you need more info from them, please visit their web site.

Please always consider your child's specific needs before giving them any food and ask your doctor what is safe for them. If you have any product questions, call the companies for more info.

Let your comfort level be your guide. If you prefer candies made in allergen-free facilities, then please go with those. There is no sense in worrying about the candy you give your child; candy is supposed to be FUN. However, I hope the following list gives you a few tasty options.

OK, disclaimers are out of the way. Let's get to the candy:

"Bob's" brand peppermint candies including Candy Canes and "Sweet Stripes": made in a facility free of the Top 8 allergens, according to Bob's customer service rep I spoke with today. The customer service rep told me that Bob's brand candies will list allergen info, including possible cross-contact info. If you don't see allergen info, it's because that particular Bob's brand of candy was made in an allergen-free facility.

Exceptions: Bob's Starlight and sugar-free Starlight mints are NOT safe for peanut and tree nut allergies. The rep said they are made in a different plant than the other "Bob's" mints. Their labels will reflect an allergy warning for nuts, among other foods.

Sweet Tarts Holiday Gummies: This brand will list allergen info, including cross-contact info, if any.

Mike & Ike brand Holiday Medley Jelly Beans: Red and green jelly beans, perfect for decorating holiday cakes and for parties.

Life Saver Big Ring Gummies--These are SO cute--they are packaged individually to look like little Christmas wreaths. Allergy note: Check the label if you are shopping for multiple allergies; some Life Saver gummies may contain milk.

Tootsie Roll Candies: All Tootsie Roll candies are made in a tree nut-free, peanut-free facility, right here in the Chicago area, as a matter of fact. They have some great new holiday candies including Candy Cane Pops (pictured above), Frosty Vanilla Midges and Starlight Pops with a Tootsie Roll center. Each holiday candy features festive individual packaging, perfect for parties or gift-giving.

York Peppermint Patty: Always nut-free, but may contain milk.

Junior Mints: Made by the Tootsie Roll company so nut-free; may contain milk or egg.

Hershey's Candy Cane Kisses: Hershey is careful about manufacturing and labeling; past conversations with them confirm that their packaging reflects detailed allergen info, including cross-contact risk due to product lines. Candy Cane kisses do not have a nut allergy warning and according to Hershey reps, are safe for nut allergies.

Starburst and Life Savers Sweet Game Books: I found these at Target. They have fun holiday activity books for young kids along with candies. These are safe for nut allergies; however, both candies have milk allergy warnings.

For all food allergies, Dum Dum suckers and Smarties are free of the Top 8 food allergens. They are always a good standby.

I hope this list gets you started. Readers, what are some of your favorite nut-free or allergy-free holiday candies? Let us know if you can find them at the supermarket!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Food Allergy-Friendly Chocolate Treats from Enjoy Life Foods: Boom Choco Boom!

I was SO excited to receive samples of delicious Boom Choco Boom candy bars from our friends at Enjoy Life Foods! And check out the smile on my daughter's face as she displays her candy bar in the photo. Let me just say the bar was GONE a few minutes after that photo was taken.

What are Boom Choco Boom bars? They are delicious dairy-free, gluten-free and NUT-FREE bars of chocolatey goodness. The bars are made with rice milk and they come in several varieties including dark chocolate, milk chocolate and crispy rice chocolate--my daughter's favorite (and mine.) We do not need to avoid dairy around here but let me tell you, people, these bars disappeared quicker than you can say "Hey, are there any more of those Boom Choco Boom bars left?" My entire family, including my daughter without any food allergies LOVED these bars.

One thing I really enjoyed about them was they have all the chocolate taste but a much lighter feel on the palate due to the rice milk. They don't "overfill" your tummy. This may be why my oldest kept asking to eat more of these. She told me to tell my readers that she "thought she was gonna die" if I didn't give her another crispy rice bar right after the first one. So of course I did. What's a mom to do?

These bars are available at Whole Foods stores throughout the U.S.--look in the candy section. In the Whole Foods I shop at, the candy section is located near the deli and bakery aisles. If you can't find them, you can also order them directly from Enjoy Life. Follow this link to get a coupon for Boom Choco Boom!

Nut-free chocolate is hard to find--nut-free, gluten-free and dairy-free chocolate that tastes great is even harder to find. I think these candy bars would make great stocking stuffers.

FTC Note: I received food samples but no compensation for this review.

Friday, December 3, 2010

There's No Other Way to Say It: Please Don't Bake for My Food-Allergic Child

I had another post I was going to run today, but the influx of e-mails in my inbox have prompted me to re-run a post that is very timely for the holidays.

A little over a month ago I asked parents of non-allergic kids NOT to bake for the allergic ones. My reasons? Cross-contact, lack of food allergy education and risk of allergic reaction due to lack of understanding. Also, studies have shown that desserts cause the most allergic reactions. Many kids also experience allergic reactions while at school: my daughter has.

With the winter holidays upon us, I am now getting many, many e-mails from well-intentioned moms who want to bake for the allergic kids in their classroom. This post is for them. First of all THANK YOU for caring. I, and the other moms who deal with food allergies, seriously appreciate your concern for our kids. You rock.

Secondly, and don't get your feelings hurt now: Please don't offer to bake for my allergic child. The only exception would be that your child has the EXACT SAME allergies as another child and you have kitchen free of those particular allergens.

I know it's hard to grasp, but your cookies could land a kid in the hospital. Put yourself in our shoes: would you want others, who may not be quite sure how to go about it, to bake for your severely food-allergic child?

I urge everyone interested to follow the link to my original post. Here I outline all the reasons why non-allergic peeps baking for the allergic is a bad idea.

A much better idea: Bring something with a label that's not homebaked. Or bring non-edible treats.

One other note that I will follow up on later: Almond extract. Don't use almond extract for the nut-allergic.

Dealing with nut allergies isn't like trying to get out of a parking ticket, unfortunately. When you are severely allergic, wiggle room doesn't exist with regard to what you ingest. Either you're allergic to nuts or you're not and if you are, you just avoid anything that says "almond." Period. Unless you want to risk the ticket, i.e., the possibly fatal trip to the emergency room.

Sorry if I sound cranky but there is real lack of education out there and I am concerned for all the nut-allergic kiddoes as they head to their winter parties or what have you.

Allergic families, this is for you. Please step up! Offer to bring something so that the room moms and family members aren't put in a position where they even feel like they have to bring a treat specifically for your allergic child. Be proactive and it will pay off, I promise. Your kids will appreciate your involvement, too.

Readers, your thoughts? Am the only one worried about this?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nut-Free Christmas Cookie Recipe: Snowballs!

Nut allergies are tricky at the holidays--it seems that nearly every cookie contains some kind of tree nut, not to mention the every present "peanut butter blossom" cookie. That's why it's time once again for my Snowballs recipe, a family favorite I created from my grandmother's recipe that used a large portion of ground pecans. Obviously any recipe containing tree nuts wasn't going to fly in our family, so I scoured my cookbooks until I found something surprisingly similar to snowballs--a Greek cookie called Kourambiethes. Unlike most Greek cookies this version of "kourambiethes" contains NO nuts at all. (Some versions do, of course. Just not this one.) Plus, they have the same shape, taste, delicious flavor and yummy powdered sugar coating that my grandmother's cookies had.

This recipe is special to my family because it comes directly from a 1950s Greek church cookbook given to me by my mother-in-law. My husband's grandmother (born in Greece) was one of the contributors of this cookbook, so the grandmother connection continues!

For a festive and attractive addition to any holiday celebration, give these a try. Also, keep in mind that the dough for these is not super-sweet--kind of like a shortbread cookie. The sweetness comes from rolling these in powdered sugar when they're hot and then sifting more over them when they are cool.


1 lb. (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar + 2 tbsp, plus lots more for sprinkling on cookies
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp pure orange extract (optional)
1 scant tsp salt

5-6 cups of all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a standing mixer, beat softened butter until very light and fluffy. Add powdered sugar, egg yolk, vanilla and orange extract if using, beating thoroughly after each addition. Add flour a little at a time until soft dough is formed that can be handled easily. Taking about a teaspoonful at a time, (I use a tiny ice-cream scoop) roll into a small ball. Place on a non-stick cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes. Sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar while still hot. Once cool, sprinkle with plenty of powdered sugar again.

Check it out: Chicago Parent magazine decided to include these cookies in their online cookbook.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Peanut Allergy News: Cyber Monday Savings from Vermont Nut-Free Chocolates!

Vermont Nut Free Chocolates (one of my all-time favorite nut-free chocolate brands) is offering a weekend sale that goes through Cyber Monday!!!

Now through Monday, Nov. 29 you will receive 10% off all Vermont Nut Free Chocolates products (excludes shipping, warm weather packaging & gift certificates). Simply use the code: “cyber” (all lowercase) at checkout.

This offer applies to all products, including the Christmas selection. You will also find fabulous Hannukah-themed chocolates including nut-free chocolate coins!

Christmas selections include Peppermint Bark, festive truffles, and delicious Christmas-themed chocolates, from Vermont Nut Free Chocolates’ vast selection of allergy safe treats. All of these treats make perfect gifts for those with peanut and nut allergies. Use them as stocking stuffers, hostess gifts, Hannukah treats--you name it. If it's festive and it's chocolate, Vermont Nut-Free has it.

Get your holiday orders in while this special offer lasts!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Peanut-Free, Nut-Free Pumpkin Muffins...for Thanksgiving or the Day After!

I always go a little overboard when purchasing canned pumpkin puree since I love to bake with it this time of year and pretty much only this time of year. If any of you are in the same boat, what do you do with your extra canned pumpkin?

I've got an easy and delish nut-free recipe you might like to try either for Thanksgiving or anytime afterward. Pumpkin lovers won't be disappointed! I got the idea from the pumpkin muffins at Panera--off-limits to my daughter, of course. So why not make our own? You can also bake this recipe in a loaf pan for a moist and delicious pumpkin loaf cake. Be aware that this recipe uses butter and eggs. If you also deal with dairy allergies, you can use your favorite dairy-free banana bread recipe and swap out the bananas for the pumpkin puree.

Nut-Free Pumpkin Muffins
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour (or use all white flour)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice (or use 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon ginger) * Note about nutmeg--it is not derived from tree nuts. It is derived from the seed of a fruit
1 15 oz can pumpkin puree
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (McCormick's or Nielsen-Massey are my fave brands)
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
Confectioner's sugar for sprinkling tops, if desired

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease muffin cups or 9-in. x 5-in. loaf pan. In medium bowl combine flour, salt, spices, baking powder and baking soda. In small bowl combine pumpkin puree, milk and vanilla.

2. In a large bowl with mixer at medium speed, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at time. Reduce speed to low; alternately add flour mixture and pumpkin mixture, ending with flour. Scrape the bowl occasionally with a rubber spatula to ensure even mixing. Beat just until blended; do not over beat.

3. Pour batter into prepared muffin tins or loaf pan. For muffin tins, bake for about 20 minutes and then test with toothpick. You don't want to over bake so a few moist crumbs clinging to the toothpick are fine. For loaf pan, bake about 1 hour and then begin checking. Again, do not over bake.

4. Cool in tins or pan and then turn out onto wire rack. Let cool; then sprinkle with confectioner's sugar, if using. Serve warm.

I hope everyone's Thanksgiving prep is going well! Stay safe, stay cool and most of all, have a happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Peanut-Free, Tree Nut-Free Thanksgiving Recipe: Speedy Sweet Potatoes

I ran this recipe last year and it is so good and easy I just had to run it again. Unlike so many of the sweet potato recipes floating around during the holidays, this one has no pecans or walnuts. I like my sweet potatoes "clean tasting" so this is perfect for me besides being safe for many food allergies. And you can make it in your microwave. What could be better? You can even bring this with you if you're not hosting the dinner--just zap in the microwave before meal time.

I adapted this recipe from the wonderful cookbook "How to Cook Everything" from Mark Bittman.

Nut-Free Speedy Sweet Potatoes
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 tablespoons canola oil or butter (you can also use dairy-free margarine)
2 tablespoons maple syrup or brown sugar
1/4 cup orange juice, or a few tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and 2 tablespoons of water in a microwave-safe bowl; cover with a lid or plastic wrap. Microwave on high for 3 minutes, shake the container and continue to microwave at 2-minute intervals until the sweet potatoes are very tender. Serve hot.

Told you it was easy. Plus, it frees up much needed oven space!

Check back soon for more Thanksgiving recipes and tips!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Food Allergies and America's Ultimate Food Fest: Thanksgiving Tips from The Nut-Free Mom

Thanksgiving is exactly a week away so I would like to offer some of my hard-won advice that I have posted previously on this blog. Here are several links that discuss many aspects of coping with Thanksgiving with food allergies, all in one place for your convenience!

Food Allergies Don't Take a Thanksgiving Holiday This post lists tips to follow to ensure a safe Thanksgiving meal with your extended family.

Food Allergies, Thanksgiving and Family Feuds Here I discuss how to cope with varying degrees of food allergy awareness and acceptance at this food-loving holiday.

A Safe Thanksgiving with the Non-Cooks What to do if your family does a catered meal, cooked outside the home.

Food Allergy Dining Out Tips Holiday travel to relatives usually involves a restaurant or two. Here are some tips for dining out with nut allergies.

Here's to the ultimate of all food holidays with food allergies: may you navigate successfully! And if you have any trouble, come on over here to vent.

Coming soon on The Nut-Free Mom...nut-free Thanksgiving recipes!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Peanut Allergy News: Thanksgiving Savings from Vermont Nut Free Chocolate!!

Vermont Nut Free Chocolate alerted me to their current Thanksgiving sale! As many of you already know, I'm a BIG fan of Vermont Nut Free Chocolate. In fact, I don't know what I would have done without them all these years. Here's what they had to say:

"From now through Thanksgiving Day Vermont Nut Free is offering 10% off all of our items on our Thanksgiving page. Just enter the promotion code Turkey at check-out to receive your discount. Offer applies only to items on the Thanksgiving page."

Click the link for your Vermont Nut Free Thanksgiving coupon.

I hope you will take advantage of the sale prices. Chocolate turkey pops (pictured above) and solid chocolate turkeys are wonderful little treats to place at the "kids table." They help to raise nut allergy awareness, provide a nut-free treat for the allergic kids AND they are melt-in-your-mouth delicious. On second thought, make sure you get enough for the "adults table" as well!

I'll be posting more holiday deals from Vermont Nut Free in coming weeks, so please keep checking back!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Family Feuds, Food Allergy and Thanksgiving

This classic Norman Rockwell painting certainly shows the ideal Thanksgiving meal--everyone anxiously anticipating the feast with a smile and a feeling of goodwill towards all at the table.

Obviously, many families don't meet the Rockwell ideal. They struggle with personality clashes, unresolved arguments and other emotional issues that seem to surface at the table along with the Thanksgiving meal. Even more complicated: What if you are the parent of a child with food allergies? Or you have them yourself? If your family is anything less than perfect (and truly, who has perfect relationships with everyone in their family) food allergies present a whole new way for relations to fight.

This is not a topic that is covered often and mainly because it is an awkward conversation to have. Too often the food-allergic (and their parents) are meant to feel as if they are taking away from the feast, the fun and the tradition if they ask for a certain food to be eliminated from the menu. This is especially difficult at Thanksgiving because the "traditional meal" is so iconic to everyone's idea about what Thanksgiving "should" be.

I've had so many people speak to me about in-laws, grandparents and other extended family members who just refuse to accept food allergies during the holidays. They're determined to serve that pecan pie or walnut-laden turkey stuffing despite the fact that their child, nephew or niece, grandson or granddaughter will be unable to partake of a large portion of the feast. Not only that, the presence of certain foods throughout the kitchen and the home may pose too much of a risk to a highly-allergic person. This is hard. What do you do?

First of all, try to remember the reason for Thanksgiving and the fact that you are in the driver's seat with your child's health and of course your own. If you are not getting reasonable accommodation--and by that I mean, a main course safe for your child or at least an effort to lessen food allergy reaction risks--then you may have to say "We can't make it this year."

Will this anger some family members? Probably, but that's really not your problem. Your problem is health. That's not to say that you close yourself off, shut down the communication and refuse to accept anything less than a full conformity to your rules. Compromise is key here.

One of the first things to consider is that the family members in question may not understand the very real danger of food allergies and that a severe reaction may cause death. When you live with this every day, it's hard to imagine someone won't get this but of course, many don't "get" it. Educate them. Show them this blog, the FAAN site and any information you doctor has given you. Share the details of your child's allergic reaction, if they've had one. Explain what can happen if an allergic person eats a certain food. Explain cross-contact. I talk more about how to do this here.

You won't be able to make inroads with everyone and in this way, you may also need to accept a less than "perfect" Thanksgiving. Family ties are important and so is health. You shouldn't have to choose between the two, but there are times that you will have to make that choice.

Even if you find yourself opting out of a feast this year or part of a feast, consider hosting your family in the future, where you will control the food. Try to keep family in the fold, because this is really what Thanksgiving is all about. Not pecan pie. Not pumpkin walnut bread pudding or pine nut bread stuffing.

Also, Allergic Living magazine will be featuring the topic of family feuds and food allergies at the holidays in their upcoming Winter issue. Stay tuned to their web site for details--today is the last day to subscribe in order to receive the Winter 2011 issue, so head over there! I'm a subscriber and it's a such a wonderful resource.

If you have Thanksgiving tales to share, good or bad, we'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Food Allergies Don't Take a Thanksgiving Holiday

The days are getting crisper, the leaves are falling in Chicago and every magazine I flip through seems to feature recipes like these: pecan pie, pine nut turkey stuffing and pumpkin nut bread. That can only mean one thing: Thanksgiving is just around the corner. And so is a nut allergy minefield if you're not prepared.

Don't get me wrong, I love Thanksgiving--it revolves around feeling thankful, celebrating family and eating a ton of good food. What's not to love? However, we've all got to keep our guard up if we're caring for an allergic child. Something about the fall/winter holidays makes people crave tree nuts, so this is a particularly difficult time for this allergy. Peanut butter and its many related food items seem to be favorites year round, but tree nuts don't usually turn up in such massive quantities until now.

My family has been celebrating Thanksgiving with a nut allergy for nearly 7 years (!) now and I've seen a lot of nutty things happen in the kitchen (that's not even counting the behavior of me and my relatives) so I have a few tips to share that should make it easier for you to cope.

I've said some of these before but they bear repeating. And if you're new to nut allergies at the holidays, take heart. Once you've been through it once, you learn A LOT so you're much better prepared next time. You must not apologize for the allergy or worry about seeming "over the top." Believe me, that's better than winding up in the ER with your child.

The other thing to remember is that family recipes and traditions are different, but one thing is the same at Thanksgiving: the emotional ties to favorite foods. So don't be shocked if you meet resistance to a "nut-free" or altered Thanksgiving menu at first. Your family and friends will get the hang of it as time goes on. And if they don't, you may want to consider hosting the celebration.

Safe Thanksgiving Tips for Nut-Allergies:

1. Communicate about the allergy early and often. Whether you plan to attend a dinner outside of your home or you are the host family, you want to put the word out now about your nut allergy concerns. Things to discuss would be safe brands of bread for stuffing, gravy sauces or sauce enhancers or mixes, stuffing recipes in general (many contain pecans, pine nuts or other nuts), desserts and cross-contamination when cooking or baking. You want to give people plenty of notice about the food to help ensure safe choices. Many times people set their menus and decide what they plan to bring to a dinner early, so go on, make that call today!

2. Offer to provide safe alternatives to family favorites. Does someone always want to make pecan pie or peanut butter blossom cookies? See if you can make an alternative pie or offer to make the cookies using SunButter (sunflower seed butter) or soybutter. Or, introduce a new recipe that may become a nut-free family favorite.

3. Be careful at the buffet table. Buffet tables present cross-contact problems, since serving spoons may be used for more than one food. You may ask to serve your child first to prevent cross contact, or prepare a separate plate for your child in the kitchen.

4. Suggest an alternative to "mixed nuts in a bowl" and peanut-laden Chex mix-style snacks from the party. Yes, these are a big hit with many family members, but see if you can bring an alternative snack. These are particularly dangerous because younger allergic children may grab these items and eat them before you can stop them. Also, people spread the nut dust and residue around with these snacks.

5. You bring (or make) dessert. Desserts are one of the top foods to cause allergic reactions, so don't chance it. You do the dessert. It may seem like a lot of work but honing your dessert-making skills is a must if you're a nut allergy caregiver. Also, everyone loves desserts, so if you make a good one you'll be one of the "heroes" of the dinner! :) Another thing I plan to do this year is give each child a chocolate turkey from Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate. A way to promote awareness, yes, but also a way to include your child and impress their cousins with a delicious treat. If chocolate is out of reach for you due to other allergies, any little "extra," whether a safe candy or even Thanksgiving-themed pencils, helps your child feel like they brought something special to the party and helps them cope with having to avoid certain foods.

6. If you're really concerned, bring a safe meal for your child. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may not feel the meal is safe enough for your child to eat. That's OK--it happens. Just bring something extra for them and serve it to them without a lot of fanfare. If anyone asks, use the situation to increase awareness: "Alex can't eat the dinner because of her nut allergy." You never know--this simple statement could result in more cooperation from others for the next celebration.

This is just a start. I'll have more tips as we get closer to the holiday, including some nut-free recipes. If you have any tips that have worked for you or if you have any questions about managing this nutty holiday, let me know!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Food Allergies and Food Labels: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Check out this photo of a label from Breton Multigrain Crackers. From my perspective as a consumer looking to avoid even traces of peanuts or tree nuts, the label I share in the photo should be one of the "good ones." It is clearly marked with regard to any nut ingredients and clearly states that the product is made in a nut-free facility. Does a label that states clear nut allergy info boost my interest in buying the product? Absolutely.

However, take another look at the label. This particular flavor also includes sesame seeds and an allergy to sesame is on the rise, so this ingredient may be a concern to some of you reading this right now. Before we get too angry at the company, though, a quick note: sesame is not one of the "Top 8" allergens and the allergy warning in bold type on this package is totally voluntary. They didn't have to put it there, but they did.

I'm talking labels because soon those of us in the U.S. will be talking turkey--as in Thanksgiving and many of us are going to be eating at the homes of family and friends. Label reading is crazier than ever these days and food labels with regard to allergy warnings are changing like the leaves in autumn.

Consider the new labels for Ragu spaghetti sauce. Now, any time of year people are serving spaghetti and tomato sauce. I make my own--taste preference as well allergy concerns factor into this decision--so I'm not a regular Ragu customer. Howevever, I came across a troubling label discussion on the page of one of my food allergy Facebook friends. Turns out Ragu has changed some of their sauce labels to reflect nut allergy warnings due to new manufacturing lines/locations.

Oh, dear. But the thing is: This happens ALL THE TIME. Here's what Ragu had to say when I questioned them on their Facebook fan page:

Hi Jenny! We totally understand your concern about nuts in our sauce. As of 2/10, some labels of our Traditional sauce stated that the product may contain tree nuts. This is because a little amount of this sauce was produced at a different plant, thus there will be an "L" in the date code instead of a "Y" so if you want to be extra cautious, check the date code. An example of a date code would look like this: JAN2211YU010302A1. We do NOT put nuts to our Old World Style Traditional - we had to put that different label # on there just for precautionary reasons. We regularly test for allergens at that facility to ensure our products meet the highest standards quality regardless of production – and to date, no allergens have been found. As we’re sure you know, you can never be too safe – so you can stick with any date code that contains a “Y”. Thank you for your concern and we hope this information is helpful!

I know. I'm a little confused after reading that as well. However, that's all I know--if you want more info from Ragu, please ask them directly.

Additionally, the law that requires the "Top 8" allergens (egg, milk, soy, tree nut, peanut, shellfish, fish and wheat) to be listed on a food label doesn't cover other allergens and does not require any additional allergy warnings in bold type. Allergy alerts in bold type are totally voluntary under current U.S. law. Only the ingredients need to be listed in "plain English." If you have any questions, I encourage you to do your homework (as I do) and contact the companies directly. The more noise they hear, the better chance they may actually create a label that's easy to decipher as well as (fingers crossed, always!!) accurate.

The bottom line is to always, ALWAYS read food labels and inspect them before serving to an allergic person. You also want to start alerting your family now if you notice any changes in food labels you've used safely in the past.

Any other food label issues you'd like to sound off on? Readers, let's hear it. If possible, share the outcomes of any e-mails you've sent or phone calls you've made.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Food Allergies and Friends

I've been dealing with food allergies and play dates for a long time now and I have to say the awareness has grown with regards to parents and other kids. Food seems to be a big part of play dates (is it me or are we feeding kids ALL the time--school, especially seems more food-centric than when I was a kid) so often this topic comes up for us. "What is "safe" to eat?" is one of the most frequent questions I get and I'm guessing it's the same for all of you. Usually I either OK foods beforehand by physically inspecting the labels or my daughter just brings her own snack or treat.

Today, I encountered another aspect of food allergies and play dates and that is how to walk a fine line between awareness and fear on the part of your child's hosts. For example, my daughter got an invite from one of her good friends this morning but her buddy was worried about the food being served. I don't think it's the case with this friend, but I wondered if worries about food had prevented others from inviting my child to play dates or parties. It's probably happened. After all, parents are busy and preoccupied to begin with. If they don't understand that food allergies are manageable provided (relatively simple) precautions are taken, they may want to avoid a child with this condition for fear of making them ill. I get this, but it doesn't have to be this way.

I want others to be concerned about food allergies, but not paralyzed by fear. It's hard to get a happy medium when you send your food-allergic child to someone else's home: either they seem way too relaxed or so freaked out that you feel uncomfortable for everyone concerned.

The way to combat either extreme is education. I realized that I need to do a better job of communicating with other parents about my daughter. A frank and honest discussion about risks and things to avoid is needed, but so is a reassurance that it will be OK if precautions are taken. I've always done this initially, but I realized that others may need some follow up reassurance. After all, food allergies are serious, and the more others hear about them in the news, the more the come up on people's radar. We need to keep the discussion ongoing.

Is it a big deal if my daughter brings a treat to share in case it's needed? Not at all, and that's another solution. Send some food with your child each time they visit a friend and then the other family doesn't bear the burden. They will appreciate it, believe me.

Even better--does every social interaction require your child to eat? Not really. Obviously food is a big part of social interaction and that's why I recommend that your child brings a treat if they like. But frankly, with childhood obesity on the rise, everyone is eating too much anyway. Focusing on fun and not always food is a good option and one that I try to emphasize. As I told my daughter's friend on the phone, "She will be happy to spend time with you, that's the important thing."

How do you cope with this problem? What works for you or what are you willing to try? Let us know.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Food Allergies, Cross-Contact and "Top Chef Desserts"

Yep, Top Chef is in my sights again, but this time as a lesson about cross-contact and how little it seems to be understood by not only the general public but by chefs. Did any of you see last week's "Top Chef Desserts" episode? It was "Restaurant Wars" (in this case, Bakery Wars) in which the cheftestants created a makeshift bakery for one day and then competed with their dishes.

Obviously, there were peanuts and tree nuts galore in these dishes. However, at one point, a "customer" came in and said he was allergic to nuts. One of the pastry chefs then said he would make a "safe" treat for this customer and served him one. Now, they didn't show what precautions they took, if any, but with all the peanuts and tree nuts swirling around the kitchen, they should not have served this customer. Not if he had a true nut allergy. The cross-contact risk is too high and the cheftestants were under an extreme time limit.

Cross-contact is simultaneously one of the most important and most difficult aspects of food allergies to explain to others. People will say "You can have this--it doesn't have nuts in it." How many times have you heard this? I know I've heard it more times than I can count and so has my daughter.

Being responsible about a severe food allergy is about more than ingredients. The environment in which food is prepared is just as important. So is the placement of the items once baked. Take a "nut-free" cookie baked in a "nut-free" facility and then put it on a bakery display next to hazelnut cake and peanut butter cups. Now the "nut-free" cookie is unsafe due to possible cross-contact.

Bake a plain vanilla cake in a small kitchen that just featured a peanut butter cupcake. The plain vanilla cake may be harboring peanut matter and is not "safe" for those with a nut allergy.

Take a plain Butterball turkey and stuff it with cornbread pecan stuffing and that plain turkey is now unsafe for someone with a nut allergy. Thanksgiving is a whole other can of worms that I will address in future posts. But since so many of us will be explaining cross-contact in the coming weeks, I couldn't resist throwing it in here now.

Cross-contact is the reason for food labels that say "may contain peanuts." It's the reason for companies choosing to create and label foods "made in a nut-free facility." Cross-contact is real and not to be downplayed.

I've heard Chef Ming Tsai talk about his food allergy-friendly restaurant Blue Ginger and how he tells his chefs to treat any food allergens like they are "raw chicken." When dealing with raw chicken you change cutting boards and utensils and wash your hands frequently or risk salmonella. I think the Raw Chicken Analogy is as good as any I've ever heard. Feel free to use it.

The main thing about cross-contact is that if you live with a severe food allergy or care for someone who does, you can't let others lack of understanding about it get in the way of safety. I know people can get offended if you tell them that you or your child can't partake of their particular foods that "don't have nuts in it."

Think of raw chicken. And then skip the food in question with a thank you and a smile.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sunbutter Cups from Cybele Pascal! A Delicious Treat for Any Season!

Because we have to give up so much of our Halloween candy bag, I try to make some special treats for both of my kids to enjoy. I realized that my oldest has never had a peanut butter cup, but she has developed a real taste for Sunbutter and her younger sister (without allergies) loves the stuff, too.

I was so happy to come across this recipe for Sunbutter Cups in a magazine article, courtesy of cookbook author and allergy-friendly baking authority, Cybele Pascal.
Click this link to go directly to the recipe. (You will need to scroll down nearly to the end of the article.)

My husband and kids went crazy for these Sunbutter Cups! (And I admit, I nabbed a few myself!) They are so tasty and lots of fun to make with my daughters.

If your child has food allergies, generally their candy bag is a little light after all the unsafe stuff is removed. I know Halloween is over, but these Sunbutter Cups are good any time of the year. How about making them when you have guests visiting over Thanksgiving or Christmas? If the kids are stir crazy, grab a jar of Sunbutter and whip up a batch of these little candies.

I hope Halloween went well for everyone and now we enter the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Stay tuned to The Nut-Free Mom blog for tips, advice and yes, more recipes. In the meantime, I'm getting myself another Sunbutter Cup before my kids get home from school!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Peanut Allergy Plea: Please Don't Bake for My Allergic Child

I ran the following post a couple of years ago when I first began my blog and I'm running it again because of the many e-mails I've received from parents wanting to provide Halloween and other treats to nut-allergic kids in the classroom.

There's just no easy way to say it: please don't bake for my peanut-allergic child--or any child with a food allergy, for that matter. Please, please don't do it.

You may be the mom who "loves to bake the treats" and I don't doubt that your intentions are good. But the risks are just way too high. Please ask the parents of the allergic kids, either directly, or through the teacher, to contribute a safe item. So many allergic reactions occur because someone ate a cookie or a cupcake they "thought" was safe. I cite the story by Dr. Robert Wood in his book "Food Allergies for Dummies." A fellow allergist baked him cookies, assured him they were "safe" and because of cross-contact of which the baker was unaware, Dr. Wood (himself allergic to peanuts) needed 5 doses of Epinephrine to recover--his reaction was that severe.

Parents of non-allergic kids: Don't feel like you're excluding anyone. We don't want an allergic reaction in our child: Period. We are happy to provide a safe treat. It's easier, safer, just plain better for everyone.

Here's my original post: "The Nuances of Nut-Free Baking":

I just read that the PTO is looking for people to contribute home-baked goods.

This year, for the first time, they asked parents to label the baked goods "Nuts" or "Nut Free." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I read that piece of info.

Don't get me wrong. I'm thankful to the PTO moms who even thought about food allergies in the first place. And I know that they mean well. But if your child has a nut allergy, you know it's not that easy. It made me wonder who advised them on this issue. Had I known, I would have put my two cents in.

The good intentions of the PTO mothers, unfortunately, will be wasted on any food-allergic family that I know. We won't touch home-baked items from people we don't know (and of course no bakery items) because of the cross-contamination risk.

Here's the problem: just because an item was not baked with nuts doesn't make it nut free. For example: You use a knife to spread peanut butter on your kid's bread. You then slice into a stick of butter and spread that on your other child's bread. You put the butter back in the refrigerator.

Then, you decide to make a recipe for the bake sale that uses a half a stick of butter. You add the butter that touched the peanut butter knife into the recipe. You bake your brownies, cookies or whatever and you don't add nuts. Then you label the item "Nut Free." Voila! It's now contaminated by peanut matter not reflected on the label.

That's one scenario. I can think of many others, such as using a non-safe cake mix or frosting, or candy cake decorations that may have been processed on lines that process nuts. Besides utensils, shared bowls or the baker's own hands can transfer peanut or nut matter into recipes.

See, I know it sounds nit picky. But I can't risk my child having an allergic reaction. So of course we won't eat your home-baked treat. I'm sure it's delicious. It's nothing personal, really!

I considered baking a treat for the carnival and labeling it "Nut-Free. Prepared in a completely peanut-free, tree-nut free kitchen. My kid is allergic so I know what cross-contamination is. Eat it. It's safe. REALLY." (Or something like that.) I can still contribute, but I'm not counting on a food-allergic family to bring my treat home unless they know it's baked by me!

If I read that label, I'd still steer clear. You just never know. Better to skip the cake walk and bake something for my daughter at home. Better still if we could have "non-food" alternate prizes for various games and activities. Maybe next year!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Food Allergies Common and Growing Says LA Times

Some of you may have read this article based on a study by Johns Hopkins University, but if you haven't, check it out, here.

According to the story, one of the most common food allergies is to peanuts. Other studies have shown that tree nut allergies have grown right alongside peanut allergy. (The article doesn't mention tree nut allergy, but other sources have noted this connection.) So if people try to tell you that no one had a peanut allergy when they were a kid so therefore, they can't really be so numerous (an illogical argument to begin with), you can point them to this story.

I'm glad the LA Times reported on this increase because food allergies are altering the landscape of everything regarding eating: agriculture, restaurants, prepared food products, grocery stores, even how items are displayed before purchase due to cross-contact concerns.

Besides just your own family members (or yourself) do you find more people you meet either have a food allergy, know someone with one or care for a child with a food allergy? In my own experience, I've found this to be increasingly true in the last five years. What about you?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Peanut Allergy News: Halloween Tips and Treats

Halloween is definitely scarier when you are caring for a child with a severe nut allergy. During Halloween it seems like every candy either contains or "may contain" peanuts, peanut butter, almonds or "nougat" i.e. nuts.

After many years of dealing with peanut and tree nut allergies AND having my daughter safely participate in trick-or-treating, I can tell you that having a fun and nut-free Halloween can be done. It just takes a little creativity, a little planning and a lot of tolerance for hundreds of mini Snickers Bars and Reese's cups.

Here are a few tips for safe trick-or-treating with peanut and tree nut allergies or any food allergy, for that matter:

- Carry two Halloween bags. One is for "possibles" that is, candies you will review with your child when you get home and one is for "unsafe" candies. The unsafe candies will go to friends, neighbors or your workplace the next day--or in the trash, your choice. Separation of bags is important because trust me on this: one exploded Snicker's bar all over the "possibles" places them in the "unsafe" pile and that is really no fun at all.

- Make sure your child eats a meal or snack before trick-or-treating. Take a hungry child with a food allergy and dangle some Halloween candy before them--are they going to be tempted? Most likely. So don't let that happen. Filling little tummies before sending them out helps prevent your child from making bad choices purely out of hunger.

- Enlist the neighbors. If you have very young children, they can probably grasp being denied candy but not why it must be so. A few friendly neighbors can save the day here. If they are open to it, provide some of your neighbors with "safe" candy that they can offer to your little one when they ring the doorbell.

- Do a candy swap. This can be a two-pronged approach. First, we swap "unsafe" candies with our child's friends who don't have allergies. Most kids are willing to give up their lollipops, gum and other safe candies for my daughter's unwanted Reese's, Snickers and other nut-filled chocolate treats. (Chocolate is usually the most unsafe thing out there on Halloween if you have certain food allergies and especially if your child has nut allergies.)

Secondly, we tell our daughter that she can turn in any unsafe candy to us for a "safe" treat bag. I fill it with nut-free chocolate from Vermont Nut-Free or Divvies and some inedibles such as some lip balm, a book or maybe some inexpensive Halloween earrings, now that she's older. In past years we used Halloween books, Hello Kitty nail polish and coloring books. When she was younger we did a Halloween treasure hunt so that she could have fun finding the treat bag. I'll tell you a secret: she still enjoys the Halloween treasure hunt.

The candy swap adds a fun element to having to give up candy and will greatly lessen any feelings of being "deprived."

- Consider candy size and ALWAYS read the labels. Different sized candies may be produced on different production lines, so check each candy before giving it to your child, even if you think it's OK. Food labels like to surprise us, so be cautious and thorough.

If the item does NOT have allergy or nutrition information on it, don't use it.

- Emphasize other elements of Halloween, not just food. Years ago, Halloween had many facets besides getting candy treats; in fact, candy as the focal point is a relatively modern invention. I remember my grandparents telling me that Halloween used to be more about costumes, playing games, scaring their friends (all in good fun, nothing dangerous!) and having Halloween parties. Plan to do all of the above if you can. Plus, researching the origins of Halloween can open up discussion and take some of the focus off of candy and sweets.

- Enjoy Halloween and autumn traditions so that trick-or-treat isn't the whole show. Pumpkin picking and carving, vists to apple orchards, baking safe cookies and enjoying the beautiful autumn weather are all great ways to enjoy the Halloween season.

For more safe Halloween ideas including a list of candy suggestions, click here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Surf Sweets: Halloween Candy Safe for Peanut and Tree Nut Allergy!

Gummy candies are a childhood favorite and a wonderful part of Halloween (gummy worms, anyone?) and it has been notoriously difficult to find a nut allergy-friendly version. Not anymore! Every parent of a nut allergic child needs to know about Surf Sweets! This delicious gummy candy is launching its new Surf Sweets Sour Worm Halloween Pack, now available at Whole Foods Stores throughout the U.S and specialty retailers just in time for “trick or treating." I've also found Surf Sweets at local stores including Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park -- it's always exciting to find candy sold at retail that is made in a completely nut-free facility!

The new Surf Sweets Sour Worm Halloween Pack contains 20 individually wrapped Surf Sweets Sour Worms in a specially designed, Halloween-themed bag. It’s the perfect treat for trick or treaters or party favors.

In addition to its new Sour Worm Halloween Pack, Surf Sweets offers seven unique varieties of its mouth-watering organic and natural gummy candies and jelly beans in 2.75-oz packages: Gummy Bears, Gummy Worms, Organic Jelly Beans, Sour Worms, Organic Fruity Bears, Gummy Swirls and Sour Berry Bears. It also offers three snack-size packs (0.9-oz) of its Jelly Beans, Gummy Bears and Sour Berry Bears.

Surf Sweets uses only the highest quality organic and natural ingredients for its candies, and they’re all free of corn syrup, synthetic dyes, artificial flavors and GMOs. All Surf Sweets candies are gluten free; dairy and casein free; allergy friendly, meaning that they contain none of the most common food allergens (wheat, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish, shellfish); and Feingold approved. And all Surf Sweets candies are produced and packaged in a dedicated nut-free facility.

These are great not only for trick or treaters but for class parties. In fact, I'm helping at my daughter's party where there are multiple food allergies. I will definitely bring the new Halloween packs with me. I also think the gummy worms would be great added to a safe "Worms in the Dirt" recipe (I'll have a safe recipe up soon!) or added to juice drinks as a spooky touch at a Halloween party. Fun, yummy, organic AND allergy-friendly--how can I resist?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Peanut-Free School Lunch Ideas: Even I Get Stumped

School has been in session for awhile now and it seems that many parents -- of allergic and non-allergic kids alike -- are seeking peanut-free lunch ideas. Some people need an alternative lunch because school is peanut-free or their child wants to sit a lunch table with a friend (love this reason!) and then of course there are those in the same boat with us: peanut butter just isn't an option.

I occasionally get stumped myself, something I discussed on my blog post for Sunbutter in August. Another issue is people who use tree nut butters instead of peanut butter. We can't do those either since my daughter and an increasing number of kids are also tree nut-allergic.

If your child will try it, Sunbutter is a great PB substitute that contains no tree nuts (though it does have some traces of soy. I believe Sunbutter is trying to change that.)

For all of us who need options, whether you are nut-free mom or you just have a nut-allergic child in your life, check out delicious list of 15 peanut-free lunches from Parenting magazine. I love the creativity and nutrition factor in these lunches!

Offering kids something other than peanut butter for lunch has a nice side option in that it teaches kids to enjoy a variety of foods.

What's your favorite, go-to nut-free lunch?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Food Allergy Walk for a Cure: Support Team Nut-Free Mom

Calling all blog readers! I need your help! I'm doing the FAAN Walk for a Cure fundraising this year, and I am seeking donations from my you, my loyal readers.

I know I have the best blog readers in the world and you all truly inspire me. I am eager to hear about your concerns, struggles, obstacles and triumphs on this food allergy journey because I am on it with you. That's why I started this blog and now, that's why I'm walking in Chicago on October 17th.

This blog has long been the place where we converge to discuss the challenges of living with nut-allergies. Many of you either have a child or family member with a nut allergy and lately I've been hearing from adults with nut allergies.

We all want the same things: advocacy, education, and ultimately a workable cure for this life-threatening condition. FAAN is hard at work to make all of these happen. I don't know what I would have done without them in the early days of my daughter's diagnosis, and I am hoping the $$ contribution from my walk will help them keep up the good work.

Here is the link that will take you directly to my fundraising page. Click the "Support Me" to donate. Thank you in advance! I hope to see you in Chicago soon!!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Halloween and Peanut Allergies: Trick or Treat???

Halloween is on everyone's mind these days and if your child has severe food allergies, the prospect of candy is definitely scarier than any other aspect of this holiday.

When my daughter was first diagnosed with life-threatening peanut and tree nut allergies, we considered not doing the whole trick-or-treating thing. It just seemed counterproductive and potentially harmful emotionally. Why be handed lots of candy that you can't eat? We thought about doing other Halloween activities, like attending Halloween-themed events at the zoo and Chicago museums, but seriously thought about just skipping the candy routine.

My daughter was 5 years old at the time and all she cared about was dressing up like a Disney Princess (that year, I think it was Sleeping Beauty.) She really wanted to go door to door in her fancy costume and I didn't want to have her miss out. Thinking back to my own childhood, Halloween was never only about the candy. It was mostly about dressing up and hanging out with my friends after dark. Candy was a nice side benefit--but definitely not the whole show.

Why should it be any different for my daughter then? We decided to take her out and just have her hand us the obvious unsafe candies--Snickers, Reeses, Butterfingers, M&Ms, and sort through the rest of it later.

It was amusing to see the reactions of neighbors who tried to hand my daughter a Snickers bar. She would politely refuse, ask if they had anything else and then say "OK, then. Thank you anyway" and skip back down the street. Most were like "huh?" A few thought she was being ungrateful or picky. So what? She was so empowered. Finally, I said "just take the candy and I'll put it in a separate bag." That's what she did and all was well.

When we got home, I traded her unsafe candy for a Halloween treats bag: Bonne Belle lip balm, stickers, safe candy and a Halloween book. She loved it!

By the next year, she was running back to me to hand me Snickers bars and the running to the next house without a second thought. Let me tell you, people love their Snickers. I had a bag full of them by the end of the night. No matter. Being with her buddies and dressing up was enough for my daughter--plus she knew she got her own special goody bag later.

A lot of you may wonder "what's the point" about trick-or-treating with nut allergies but if your child really wants to do it, I say go for it. It's a way to show them that they can participate with other kids, while still being careful about their allergy. Now that my daughter is older and her trick-or-treating days are numbered, I'm so glad she enjoyed this. I don't think she'll remember the bag full of Snickers as much as she'll remember the good times she had dressing up, seeing "spooky" decorations and running around in the dark with her friends.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Halloween Cookies Safe for Peanut Allergy: Frankenstein Monster Toes!

It's October first which means it's once again time for some peanut- and tree nut-free Halloween cookies! This fun recipe for "Frankenstein Monster Toes" cookies (tweaked from a recipe I found that used almonds)is a big hit with family, friends and blog readers alike. My recipe also now appears in the Chicago Parent online cookbook! The cookies make a great, nut-free addition to Halloween parties and are just a great treat that makes both kids and adults smile.

I found the recipe for this basic sugar cookie in a Halloween-themed food magazine and modified it to fit my own nut-free specifications. If you have kids with dairy, egg or wheat allergies or celiac disease, you can substitute your favorite "safe" sugar cookie recipe. Just be sure to refrigerate your dough for at least an hour.

Frankenstein's Monster Toes Cookies

1 pouch (1 lb. 1.5 oz.) Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix--or use your favorite from-scratch sugar cookie recipe
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup melted butter or margarine
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (I use McCormick)
7 drops NEON green food color (McCormick makes this--check the supermarket baking aisle)
36 Mike and Ike or other "safe" jelly beans such as Surf Sweets or Vermont Nut-Free

1. In large bowl stir cookie mix, flour, melted butter, egg, vanilla and green food color until soft dough forms. Cover and refrigerate for one hour.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. For each cookie, roll heaping teaspoons of dough into 2-1/2 inch finger shapes. Be careful not to make the shapes too big or too flat--the dough spreads a lot during baking!
3. About 1 inch from the end of each "toe" squeeze dough slightly. With knife, gently make lines in the dough to look like "knuckles"
4. Bake 6-8 minutes until set. The edges of the cookies should not be at all brown. While still on cookie sheet and working quickly before cookies cool, gently but firmly press a jelly bean into the edge of each "toe" for fingernail. Cool cookies one minute; remove to cooling racks. Let cool completely, about 15 minutes.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Peanut Allergy News: Changing Food Labels and a Cupcake Recipe

Do you check the labels of foods, each and every time? Most of us probably do, but when you're used to using a "safe" food, sometimes we don't. Recently, I checked the label of Hostess Cupcakes for my daughter and was surprised to find new tree nut allergy warnings. Of course I wondered if the risk had been there all along and that may be the case. It's difficult to get a straight answer from companies on that one. Another possibility is that they changed their manufacturing practices and are using new production lines or different facilities. This happens more often than you think.

It isn't just Hostess. Whole Foods Brand Organic Ketchup now carries a nut allergy warning. One of my Facebook friends just alerted me that some types of Ragu brand spaghetti sauce now have a nut allergy warning on the label. I checked some Ragu flavors at my local supermarket and didn't see any nut allergy warnings, but you might depending on where you live.

The bottom line is to always read a label! And when providing a "safe foods" list to friends or teachers, be sure you keep a copy for yourself so you can periodically re-check the labels throughout the year. You never know when they will change!

Getting back to cupcakes. I don't usually buy Hostess cupcakes for my daughter since I am pretty much a from-scratch baker due to nut allergy risks of baked goods. Still, kids like to eat what their friends are eating. And though the taste isn't so great, the appearance of Hostess cupcakes and the cream center are a big hit with kids.

Here is a recipe for a cream-filled cupcake that I found in a cookbook years ago and tweaked for my nut-free purposes. This recipe is not something you would make every day but for birthdays or special occasions it is a delicious treat! Please note: The following recipe is nut-free only.

Nut-Free, Cream-Filled Cupcakes

Makes 12 cupcakes

Cream filling:
2 3oz packages cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup marshmallow cream (I use Marshmallow Fluff brand)
1 large egg
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Cupcake batter:

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch process if possible (I use Vermont Nut-Free or Hershey's Dutch Process)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tbs water
1/3 cup canola oil
2 tsp white distilled or cider vinegar
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Make the filling: In a medium bowl with an electric mixer, beat cream cheese, marshmallow fluff, egg, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Place mixture in freezer while you prepare cupcake batter (or refrigerate for one hour)

Make cupcakes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the cups of a 12-cup muffin tin with baking cups.

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt, stirring with a whisk to break up any lumps. In another bowl, combine water, oil, vinegar and vanilla. Gradually add liquid ingredients to the flour mixture, whisking until completely blended.

Place a tablespoon of batter on each lined muffin cup. Then place a dollop of chilled cream filling (about 1 tablespoon) into each cup. (You may have some filling left over.) Fill cups about 3/4 full with remaining cupcake batter--do not overfill. Bake 25 minutes or until cupcakes look set around the edges. Cool in tins about 15 minutes and then gently lift out of pan and place on wire rack to cool completely. When cool, finish with Fudge Icing.

Fudge Icing:
1/3 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use Vermont Nut-Free or Hershey's brand) or 4 oz chopped semisweet chocolate (Vermont Nut-Free or Baker's brand)

Place chocolate in bowl. In a saucepan, bring cream to a low boil and then pour over chocolate. Stir until chocolate melts completely and icing is smooth. Cool until slightly thickened and room temperature.

When cupcakes are cool, frost each one with an offset spatula. Let cupcakes stand until frosting firms up.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Peanut Allergy Dilemma: Learning to Let Go and Let Them Grow

I started writing this blog when my daughter was in second grade; now she's in fifth. We actually discovered my daughter's allergy when she was four years old and in preschool.

Though the early years were scary for many reasons, I think our current and future situation is possibly going to be both the most challenging and also the most rewarding. Now that my daughter is 10, nearly 11, I can't really approach her as I could a small child. She's growing into her own person and wants to do more things idependently. She's clamoring for sleepovers "not at OUR house, at my FRIEND's house" and other activities that take her out of the realm of a controlled food environment and optimum safety.

I'm struggling with what I will let her do and not do, but mainly I stick to the principles that we've had all along. Safe is safe. Some things aren't safe and we don't do them, but we'll do something else. However, I don't want to squelch her independence or joy about new friends and new experiences. It's a very tricky balancing act and we're figuring it out as we go. These days, I often feel like I'm on a balance beam.

Like all of us dealing with a life-threatening nut allergy (she is allergic to peanuts and most tree nuts)I evaluate each situation individually and urge you to do the same. When questioning what you will let your child do, you have to ask: how allergic are they? How risky is the activity? Is an allergic reaction relatively avoidable with certain precautions? Do the adults in charge truly understand how to handle an allergic emergency? Finally, the last question is: How much does your child want to do the activity?

All of the above goes into my decision-making. From Day One of being a "Nut-Free Mom" I've always wanted my daughter to have the fullest, most "normal" life possible. However, this involves some work. I strongly believe in educating all of the parents of her close friends on the details of her allergy; I will even give them copies of her Food Allergy Action Plan just to keep it all straight. At the same time, my daughter and I go over scenarios and possible allergy risks and discuss the best way she can handle them.

Obviously, no matter how much your child wants something, you shouldn't allow it if it just seems too risky. Health comes first. However, I am finding myself on the balance beam much more frequently these days and it's a new kind of scary. We could fall off and we have to walk a very straight line to stay on the beam. However, getting out there is liberating to my daughter and ultimately to our family. And of course, we aren't walking a beam with no soft mats underneath to break our fall. Always carrying medication and following our "house rules" when it comes to food help us make it safely across the beam and back again.

As my daughter grows, it's not just providing safe foods and hosting play dates any more. It's about teaching her how to be responsible for her allergy without scaring her away from life and its many experiences. She is eager to try so many things and I support her in that. I know that she's going outside of our realm with knowledge, her medications and some confidence that she can handle herself. As she grows toward adulthood, these are going to be key in keeping herself safe.