I received my latest New Yorker magazine dated February 7 (with a caricature of Mayor Bloomberg on the cover) and it contains an article that is causing a lot of buzz around the food allergy community. "The Peanut Puzzle" explores theories on what may be causing food allergies and some of the research that is being done to desensitize allergic kids. (You cannot read the entire article online unless you are registered; you can find it at your local library or magazine stand, though.)
After a careful review of this article, I'm very mixed about it, mainly because it ends with a supposedly successful desensitization to milk and it gives the impression (if you don't know all of the research and details) that food allergies are pretty simple to cure. The article never explains that desensitization is not an actual cure, that is, removing the allergy. All that desensitization will do is raise a person's threshold.
The article does not reveal any brand new research: the "hygiene hypothesis" is mentioned, as is the low rate of peanut allergy in Israeli babies, the theory being that this is due to an infant food containing peanuts. Both of these theories have been out there for awhile. Leading allergists Hugh Sampson, M.D. and Scott Sicherer, M.D. are both quoted in the article. One striking thing that they both mention is that they don't know, and that no allergist really knows what is causing food allergies.
One thing this New Yorker article accomplishes, however, is that it brings home some startling facts about public perception of food allergies, especially with regard to restaurants. In a study that Dr. Sicherer conducted using 100 restaurant workers (managers, chefs, waiters) in the NYC and Long Island regions, whopping percentages of those surveyed had potentially deadly misinformation about food allergies. More than a third surveyed thought that food allergens can be "killed" by frying a food at high temperatures and a fourth believed that small amounts of food allergens aren't harmful. A fourth also were misinformed about cross-contact; they believed that simply removing allergenic foods from a finished dish (taking walnuts out of a salad and then serving the salad, for example) would not be harmful to an allergic person.
Despite being wrong on these accounts, 75% of the workers surveyed believed that they knew how to serve an allergic diner a safe meal. Wowsa. That scares me to the core, especially because incidents in restaurants account for about half of all fatal food allergy reactions.
Is it any wonder that I get more than a little antsy in restaurants? I share this information because many of you reading this right now are brand-new to food allergies. Because food allergies get so much media attention lately, you may wrongly believe that restaurants understand how to keep your allergic family member safe. Many don't. You need to be really cautious. For example, my family avoids restaurants where a lot of dishes serving nuts are on the menu. We won't allow our daughter to eat a salad if other salads on the menu contain nuts or nut dressings (the stats I list above back us up on this one.)
That's not to say that you can never eat in a restaurant. But don't shoot the messenger here, if you care for an allergic child or have allergies yourself, your carefree restaurant days of breezing in and out of establishments are over. Do your homework, read menus, make phone calls. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it. Learn to cook--it's safer.
I may not agree with everything in this article, but one thing I do agree with. The author states that "People with food allergies live under a constant threat in a society that is still poorly informed about the condition."
For information on handling food allergies in restaurants, please check out some of my former blog posts:
Check online menus before you eat
A great restaurant experience
A bad restaurant experience
Please also visit Allerdine and Allergy Eats for more helpful dining out info!