Thursday, June 30, 2011

Food Allergies and the Fourth of July: Be Prepared to Celebrate Safely!

I hope everybody is gearing up to enjoy a great 4th, but since that means travel for many of us, I wanted to share some tips for coping with this fun and food-filled summer holiday.

First of all, if you're traveling by car, try to start the trip after a meal: It saves time, worry and stress! You'll also want to pack plenty of safe food options--you never know what a road trip can involve so be prepared! It's better to give your child food you've brought alone for the trip than risking restaurant food somewhere that looks sketchy just because you have nothing else to feed them (or you!)

Also, if you are traveling by airplane, see this post I wrote about air travel. Don't forget to remind the airline about your family's food allergy needs and don't forget to keep epinephrine with you in the cabin.

In fact, always remember to keep your epinephrine autoinjectors with you at all times.

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

Here are a couple more links that will help you on the 4th:

Staying safe at summer barbecues

Jen Roeder Love from FAAN (The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network) shares her favorite travel tips

FAAN's travel tips from their web site

Have a great time everybody!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Food Allergies at the Supermarket: Be on Alert

You might think that shopping for food allergies at the supermarket is stressful simply because it entails lots of research and label reading on each product.

That's only part of it. Commenters on my Nut-Free Mom Facebook page reminded me recently of several other grocery shopping pitfalls with food allergies. This is something that I often struggled with when my daughter was very young and I'm sure many of you are in the same boat. If you are new to food allergies, you will want to be on alert at the supermarket if you've got young kids with allergies in tow.

Shopping carts. Because many parents give their kids food (PB & J being one such popular snack) to quiet them down for a shopping trip, you will want to wipe down the cart handle if you are placing a little on in the seat of the basket. Better yet, purchase a washable shopping cart cover (like these, available at Target) to protect the seat. The bonus of shopping cart covers is that you will also cut down on exposure to colds/flu and other lovely little baby and toddler germs. If your kids want to ride in those special grocery cart "cars" just give them a good wipe down before letting them get in. Bring the wipes and let them ride. You'll miss the days when they no longer want to do least I think you will.

Food samples. If you don't have food allergies, free food samples may seem like a lovely way to spend an afternoon. However, if you or your child has food allergies, you will soon come to view this situation as "food pushing." Be on alert for these kindly but sometimes clueless folks--one mom who commented on my Facebook page said that, while on a recent grocery trip, somebody handed her peanut-allergic child a trail mix sample (contains peanuts!!) while her back was turned and she had to quickly wrench it from her child's hands. If this happens to you, please nicely tell the food sample rep that they might want to think twice before handing food out to children--your child has severe allergies. If this continues to be a problem, contact store management. They may need to issue these reminders as well.

The deli. My daughter doesn't have dairy allergies, so one of my kids' favorite things was to get the "free" piece of cheese when I made my deli order. That was OK for us--wouldn't be for many. Obviously, the deli counter can have all sorts of free items on offer that kids might be offered (or that might be in grabbing distance). I've seen crackers, mixed nuts, etc. all out for display at various supermarket delis.

The bakery. This one was always the heart breaker for us when my daughter was little. At SuperTarget, they offered my daughter cookies even as we passed by, quickly, on our way past the bakery items (supermarket bakery items are unsafe for nut allergies.) Kindly refuse and teach your child to refuse. Sometimes I would say "She has allergies" in the hope that it might deter them the next time.

Bulk bins. Candy, peanuts, and all types of other foods may be in kid-level bulk bins at the supermarket. Be on the lookout and be sure to remind your kids that bulk bins are "hands-off."

Believe it or not, the supermarket will not always be such a drag. It really helps to talk to even very young kids about not taking food from strangers because learning to nicely refuse foods is going to be a life-long skill.

Any food allergy pitfalls at your local supermarket? Let us know!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Food Allergy News: The Nut-Free Mom on The TODAY Show Site

I am thrilled to have an essay posted on The TODAY Show web site to correspond with a breaking news story that shows food allergies in children are more numerous than previously believed. The study, conducted by an allergist from Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, also shows that 40% of kids affected have experienced a severe allergic reaction.

My essay appears on The TODAY Show Parenting section of the web site and here is a direct link.

I'm so happy to have been able to share my story and thanks to The TODAY Show for allowing me to share the personal side of living with food allergies!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) Guest Blogger Jennifer Roeder Shares Her Summer Travel Tips!

I'm so excited to share the following guest blog post with you from Jennifer Roeder, Director of Marketing and Media Communications for FAAN, The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. I have met Jen a couple of times at FAAN conferences, including the most recent one in Chicago and she kindly offered to write a guest post. As someone who not only works with FAAN in a dynamic capacity, but as someone who deals with dietary restrictions herself, Jen gives us some valuable insights on summer travel with food allergies. She also shared this great picture of herself with her husband Mark on a recent vacation. Thanks to Jen (and FAAN) for all you do!

School’s out for summer! And that means summer vacations are in full swing. Traveling with food allergies presents unique challenges, but with advance planning, it can be done.

While I don’t have a life-threatening food allergy, I do have to avoid all milk and gluten products due to my own medical conditions, so I always have to plan ahead to make sure that I have access to safe foods when traveling.

My husband and I enjoy traveling. Earlier this year we traveled with my parents, and next week we are headed to North Carolina with my husband’s parents to enjoy some time at the beach. Here are some of the preparations I make when traveling, as do others who are avoiding certain ingredients:

1. Pack safe food and snacks. There are certain foods that are hard for me to find substitutes for such as yogurt, butter, pasta, and bread. These substitutes are certainly easier to find then they were 15 years ago, but when you are traveling to an unfamiliar location you don’t always know what the grocery stores will carry. When traveling by plane, I always have one bag with food staples and snacks. It works out nicely that you eat the food while you are on vacation and then have a bag to bring home souvenirs. When driving to a vacation destination, I pack a cooler and a bag with food to make sure that I have enough food to eat on the drive, plus some cooking essentials for the week. I have also heard from people that they ship food to their destination in advance. The method of getting the food to vacation may vary, but one thing is for sure – vacation is much more enjoyable when you know you won’t have to worry about what you’re going to eat.

2.Reserve a hotel room with a kitchen or kitchenette. With food allergies and intolerances, many of us feel safest eating food that we or family members have cooked. Having access to a kitchen makes it that much easier.

3.Research local restaurants. Many hotels and resorts have a wonderful concierge staff that knows the local restaurants. On several trips I have found wonderful restaurants I would never have known about without their help.

4.Bring your medicine. It is always important to have your medicine in case of an allergic reaction. Before traveling, make sure to double-check the expiration dates of all medicine you are packing, and talk to your doctor if you need extra.

5. Find the location of emergency medical care. We hope you won’t need it, but it is better to know the location of emergency medical care and never need to use it than need it and not know where to go.

The key to traveling with food allergies and intolerances is planning ahead. Here is to a safe and enjoyable summer. It’s time for me to start packing!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Food Allergies: Teaching Your Child to Self-Advocate Pays Off

I wanted to share a story with you since I know that many of us worry about teaching our kids to handle their allergies on their own. When your little one is diagnosed with severe food allergies (usually this happens at a very young age)it can be difficult to imagine them ever managing it on their own.

From personal experience as well as what others share with me, I've found that teaching a child to manage the allergy should begin immediately. Obviously you don't want to scare a tiny child with too many details, but emphasizing "safe" and "unsafe" foods and teaching kids how and what to avoid is something you can do right away. Two really good resources for helping you to do this are the Beyond a Peanut flashcards and the young children's book "Ally the Allergic Elephant" by Nicole Smith (who I met recently, along with her awesome teen son, Morgan.)

My family used these resources as well as positive encouragement and reinforcement with my daughter from the time we knew of her allergy at age 4. Her own memory of her severe allergic reaction (that clued us into the fact that she had an allergy at all) certainly keeps her on track, but our family's consistency with regard to managing the allergy has also helped. Like many of you, I've often felt like a broken record, repeating myself over and over, but now that my daughter is 11 years old, she's taken over a lot of the ownership of her allergy management.

Case in point: This past weekend, my daughter attended a Taylor Swift concert with her cousins in Detroit. Since the concert was held at Ford Field (a football stadium) of course peanuts were being sold by vendors. Luckily, there weren't a lot of peanuts around her seating area, and it was nowhere near as "peanutty" as a baseball game, but she told me later that she was a little concerned.

Since we knew this would probably be an issue, she asked to eat before going to the concert and while there, only ordered a Coke. Let me tell you, she could have cared less about eating at the concert. It was her first "grownup" concert so it was all about Taylor Swift and the experience of seeing her.

What really impressed me was that she was careful to only order a "bottled" Coke from a vendor at a stationary location in the arena. Why? She noticed that the vendors selling food/drinks in the stands were serving peanuts as well as "open," already-poured drinks and she didn't want to risk the cross contact. This was something she spotted on her own and brought up without prompting. She was right to be concerned because the vendor-sold items did carry a risk that was better to avoid altogether. She also carried her own hand wipes and cleaned her hands--you can't have too many hand wipes when out and about with a food allergy.

Do I wish she didn't have to be so concerned? Of course. But this kind of proactive thinking (along with eating before the show) is what's going to keep her safe and healthy as she moves to even more independence. It wasn't a big deal to her--by now, it's just part of life and it doesn't faze her.

This is such a great point for a child to reach. It doesn't mean I don't worry anymore, but since I can see her making the right choices, I feel good about her doing things on her own.

For those of you who have very young kids facing food allergies, just keep playing the "cracked record" and one day, your kids will be telling you how they can stay safe.

And that's a huge point to reach, because let's face it: no one is going to be as concerned about food allergies as you are (or your kids are). They have to self-advocate and the sooner they learn, the better for everyone.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Food Allergy Labels: May Contain Allergy Warnings and More

Many readers of my Nut-Free Mom Facebook page have brought up the question of food labels recently so I thought it was a good time to tackle this increasingly confusing subject.

If you are new to food allergies (and even if you've been dealing with it for awhile like I have) one of the most daunting things you experience is a trip to the supermarket. What do the labels mean? If it doesn't say anything about food allergens, does that mean it's safe to eat? What are you supposed to do, call every food company?

The answers vary, but first it helps to understand the current FDA food allergy labeling laws.

Current food allergy labeling laws: FALPCA
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALPCA) ensures that foods will include "plain language" listing of the top 8 common food allergens. These are considered to be: soy, egg, dairy, wheat, fish, shellfish, tree nuts and peanuts.

The FALPCA law also requires that companies also list exactly what the allergen is, for example, they must name "pecans" if it is a tree nut or "shrimp" if talking about shellfish. It must be specific.

Here is an excellent document from the USDA that explains more about FALPCA.

A common misconception about FALPCA is that this law requires companies to add "may contains" or "processed in a facility with" or "processed on equipment with" statements. These are NOT required by law and are in fact voluntary statements placed there at the discretion of the food manufacturer. If do you see these statements, please don't discount them. A study was done of "may contains" statements and it was found that a large percentage of the time the food item in question did contain the allergen even though it was not an official "ingredient."

What does it all mean?
Where does that leave us when grocery shopping? First off, you must read every label every time because practices do change. Just because it was safe before does not mean that it's safe today. Check every item you plan to serve to an allergic person, every time.

When you see a food label with no allergy warnings and it is a "high-risk" food for nut allergies such as ice cream, candy or baked goods, that's when you may need to call the company. I always start by going online and reading allergy labeling policies -- some companies even let you search according to the exact brand name or type of food. If you call, have the UPC symbol with you--take a pic of it with your cell phone, but have it because then you will exact info for the product in question. Also, have the exact item name. (The UPC code will usually suffice if you don't have this). UPC codes are the numbers beneath the "lines" on a package so that it can scan at the grocery store. It's also known as a "bar code."

Some companies will not give you complete info. Some will tell you to avoid all of their foods. Some will even list "may contains" warnings on their web sites but not on the actual package. (Edy's brand ice cream does this, for example.) Another practice that is relatively new it to tell consumers to look for certain "ID" numbers that supposedly indicate what plant the food was made in. Ragu said this to many of us a few months ago in response to new tree nut allergy warnings on some of their sauces. Supposedly if it had a certain "code" that meant the sauce didn't have tree nut allergy risk.

To me, this is bunk. It does NOT fall within current FDA law to play roulette with consumers and I would avoid companies and/or products that try to hedge their bets this way.

Ultimately it is up to you, the consumer, to decide what you feel comfortable serving to a person with severe food allergies. If avoiding reactions is your goal, a conservative approach will serve you well. Until we have more complete labeling policies, a lot of this is going to be up to us to manage, ask questions about and deal with.

Eventually you will find the foods and companies that you feel you can trust. You will probably also find yourself making more food so that you know what goes into it.

Please note that I am unable to answer specific questions about specific food companies. I'm a consumer just like you so I would advise contacting companies directly with your questions and concerns.

Here are some additional links that describe current food allergy labeling laws:

Official food labeling law w/regard to food allergens from FDA web site

Food Labeling law explanation

Other FALPCA requirements