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.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Food Allergy News: FAAN on Lifetime's "The Balancing Act"

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network is really working hard to raise food allergy awareness and educate the general public about food allergies. Don't miss their appearance on Lifetime TV this Tuesday, September 21st! I just received the following alert from FAAN e-news:

Remember to tune into “The Balancing Act,” on Lifetime Television, Sept. 21 at 7:00 a.m. for a segment about food allergies featuring FAAN. Click in the link for the show's promo and be sure to tune in!

The program will feature interviews with our Heart of FAAN Child Ambassador Leandro de Armas, Brian Hom, who tragically lost his son as the result of a fatal food allergy reaction, and Maria Acebal, FAAN’s Vice President of Research and General Counsel, as well as a demonstration of how to use an epinephrine auto-injector.

Let's show our support for public education about life-threatening food allergies by watching this much-needed program!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Peanut Allergy-Safe Recipe: Completely Nut-Free and Delicious Pumpkin Bread

With fall upon us, I thought it was time for a heart-warming recipe for a good old-fashioned baked treat that will fill your house with the autumnal scents of pumpkin, brown sugar, cinnamon and pumpkin-pie spice. Hungry yet? The recipe you see pictured is for a bake sale at school--I'm slicing it up into individual slices and asking top dollar! (Hey, it is a fundraiser.) If you make it, you'll know why I am upping the sale price. It's crazy good and so versatile--it works for breakfast, brunch, snacks, with a cup of tea in the afternoon, you name it!

I customized this recipe from a similiar one I found in the Gourmet Magazine cookbook. One thing I changed was the streusel topping. Unlike many streusel toppings out there, the one I've devised manages to be crunchy and nut-free at the same time. Enjoy!

Nut-Free Pumpkin Spice Bread with Streusel Topping

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons dark brown or light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, slightly softened

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 15 oz can of solid pack pumpkin
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2-1/4 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten

Make the topping first:
Blend together flour, sugar, butter and cinnamon in a small bowl with your fingertips until the mixture looks like coarse meal.

For the bread:
Place rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Spray Pam with flour on two 9 x 5 inch loaf pans.

Sift together flour, salt, baking soda, pumpkin pie spice in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, whisk pumpkin, sugar, eggs and oil. Add flour mixture to large bowl and stir gently until well combined.

Divide batter between loaf pans. Sprkinkle half of topping over each. Bake until a wooden skewer inserted in the center of the bread comes out clean 50-60 minutes.

Cool loaves in pan on wire rack for 45 minutes, then turn out of pan and let cool completely on rack, about one hour.

Wrap well in plastic wrap and foil to keep refrigerated for about a week. Can also be frozen up to one month.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Teacher New to Peanut Allergy? Here's What To Do

I've been hearing from many readers about school-related issues lately and one of the most frequent issues that pops up is dealing with a teacher who has never dealt with nut allergies. This is becoming less frequent of an occurence, but it still happens.

In fact, it happened to our family. My daughter's first grade teacher had been teaching for 20+ years and was a lovely person. However, she had never had a peanut-allergic student. Terror raced through my body when I first spoke to her and got this news. With my daughter being so young, I was especially concerned.

Despite my initial worries, this teacher turned out to be a great supporter of our daughter and the time spent in the class went really well. In fact, the teacher decided to speak of our daughter's allergy to the entire class (with our go-ahead, of course) and she even shared her own medical issues (asthma) with the class. She showed them her inhaler and then discussed Alexandra's Epi Pen. It was only one example of how well she handled the whole thing.

However, I know that teachers new to nut allergies are sometimes completely freaked out by the situation. I've had other adults I've had to help learn about nut allergies and here is what has worked for me.

Discuss symptoms. Many people are afraid they won't recognize an allergic reaction when they see one. Give a list of explicit symptoms to look out for and what steps to take. Food Allergy Emergency Action Plans are a great tool for this. You can find them at the FAAN website.

Emphasize that you are the teacher's partner. Explaining how you will help throughout the school year, either by providing safe treats, volunteering at field trips or pitching in at a party shows you are involved. If you have a busy work schedule and can't always volunteer, checking in before major events for a review is really helpful.

Educate the educator. Some teachers have no idea of the basics of a food allergy so don't leave them in the dark. Refer them to the FAAN website, provide them with brochures from your allergist or feel free to send them to this blog so they can understand what they are dealing with. Every adult I've shared info with has really appreciated getting the knowledge.

Keep the lines of communication open all year. Teachers are human; with all the other kids they have to care for, sometimes they will forget the allergy protocol. Don't assume the worst. If a slip-up occurs, schedule time to discuss the situation in a non-accusatory manner. The teacher wants the school year to go smoothly as much as you do and reminders are something you should anticipate. I've never had only one conversation about food allergies with any of my child's teachers. It's an ongoing discussion.

Now it's your turn. What has (or hasn't) worked for you? Let us know!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Peanut Allergy News: Nut-Free Granola/Snack Bars from Vermont Nut-Free

Recently I was contacted by Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate, one of my all-time favorite nut allergy-friendly companies, about their new granola snack--the Tanabar! This delicious granola bar is 100% peanut- and tree nut-free and when it comes to a granola snack, nut-free is hard to find. I received samples of all three flavors and my kids devoured them! In fact, I had to hide the bar you see in the photo above so that I would have time to get a picture of it for my blog--believe me, it would have been eaten.

The Tanabar comes in three flavors: Wild Berry, Sweet Raisin and Chocolate Chip. The Wild Berry and Sweet Raisin flavors won't melt in the heat so you don't have to order a cold pack to keep them fresh. My kids really loved all three flavors with my oldest leaning towards the chocolate chip (she's a chocoholic). For those of us dealing with allergies besides nuts, please be aware that the Tanabar may contain wheat and soy.

As a parent dealing with nut allergies, it's hard to find snack bars that are safe to send to school for a healthy snack, as a great take-along snack to activities or an after school snack. The Tanabar is the perfect treat for all of these situations. I used to enjoy regular granola bars but haven't bought them for years because of the presence of nuts and peanut flour. I am thrilled to find a snack that is safe for my allergic daughter but that I will also enjoy.

I love Vermont Nut-Free--in fact, my kids are already placing their Halloween orders from VNF! In the meantime, I'm very happy to discover this delicious treat. To help counter the cost, if you "like" the Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate Facebook fan page you can get special discounts. Also, signing up for their e-mail alerts will provide you with consistent discount offers as well. When you place your orders with VNF, be sure to sign up for these alerts. You can get great savings!

Let me know how you enjoy the Tanabar--I wish my samples weren't gone. I could use one right about now!

FTC Note: I was provided with food samples but received no other compensation for this review.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Is Hershey's Chocolate Nut-Free?

With school in session again, I'm getting a lot of questions about candy and snacks. I thought it was time to revisit my nut-free Hershey chocolate info. A lo fo people want to know "Is Hershey's Chocolate nut free?" Here is a blog that I wrote in the past year:

Like me, a lot of you have probably called Hershey in the past. They have pretty thorough information on their labels, according to the reps I've spoken to and appear to take appropriate safety protocols. For those of you who want a nut-free facility for your chocolates, of course I will plug Vermont Nut-Free Chocolates once again! They have a huge selection of nut-free chocolates including baking chocolate, themed chocolate candies and some delicious new nut-free snacks. They are always my first choice.

Now, on to Hershey: I have used most of the following Hershey's products and they've worked out fine for my severely nut-allergic daughter. However, depending on your situation, they may not work for you. Always check with your doctor if you've got additional questions.

OK, with the disclaimer out of the way, here is the list of Hershey's candies that are currently "safe" for people allergic to tree nuts and peanuts:

Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar - regular size 1.5 oz (KING Size or any other size of this bar does have cross contamination)--- this bar is made on a dedicated line 24 hours per day (does contain milk)

Jolly Ranchers - hard candy

Twizzlers - Strawberry (does contain wheat and soy)

York Peppermint Patty (does contain milk)

Hershey's Milk Chocolate Kisses (does contain milk)

Hershey's Chocolate Syrup

Hershey's Cocoa Powder (for baking)

Check out this link from the FAQS page at Hershey. It confirms what I have been told--if there is any concern about crossover contact, they will have an allergy warning such as "may contains" or "processed on equipment with." If you don't see this type of allergy warning you can then deem the product "safe."

For example, that would mean plain Hershey's milk chocolate kisses are safe for nut allergies. For other varieties--and there are so many--please read the labels carefully. Also, Hershey's semi-sweet baking chips are OK. This is good to know since Nestle, many people's old standyby, are off limits.

Of course, companies can make mistakes so we never have guarantees when purchasing prepared foods from a facility that is not dedicated nut-free. However, kudos to Hershey (located in my husband's hometown!) for taking food allergies seriously. If you have questions about specific allergy needs, you can call Hershey at 1-800-468-1714. Hours are Monday-Friday between 9 and 4 ET.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Peanut Allergy-Safe School Lunches: My Guest Blog on Sunbutter

As many of you know, I am a recent and devoted Sunbutter fan and had the honor of writing their current Guest Blog. Click the link to read the entire post. In my post, I talk about how Sunbutter makes a Nut-Free Mom's life easier. Does it ever.

Thanks to Sunbutter for letting me share my thoughts with their fans!