Monday, February 18, 2008

The Nuances of Nut-Free Baking

My last blog post reminded me of something I just read in my daughter's elementary school newsletter. The school is having their Winter Carnival in about a week and 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!


Shawn said...

Love your blog! Lots of great information here ... and I do think you are coming up with some fresh topics for consumer magazines.

I guess it also begs to question: What is safe to send to a bake sale? Gluten-free, nut-free, sugar-free, etc. Are there any nearly perfect recipes out there that all parents could choose from?

Mrs. Q. said...

That's a very good point. I got into practice of using nut-free products because of my kids' preschool, but I know many moms don't think twice about using M&Ms or other seemingly safe foods. I'm sure moms of other kids with allergies would not mind your detailed label at all!

Do you have suggestions on mass-marketed baking mixes that are safe/nut free? It could be helpful to share at a PTO meeting...

Jenny said...

There really aren't any perfect recipes in the sense that it depends on what allergies/intolerances you are catering too.

A few really good allergy-free cookbooks exist that address nearly every type of food allergy such as Cybele Pascal's Allergy-Free Baker's Handbook--but again, the cross-contact issues brought up in my post can cause concern.

For bake sales, I suggest offering some non-edible fundraising items. Many people deal not only with food allergies but there is an increase in childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes. Plus, some parents really just don't like artifical food ingredients and sugar.

Non-edible gives everyone an option and still allows for fundraising.

Jenny said...

Hi Mrs. Q:

Thanks for your comments! Regarding mass-marketed baking mixes, the labels will reflect if nuts are an ingredient. The labels will NOT always reflect if the mix was processed on lines with, or near other mixes that contain certain allergens. Unfortunately, those "may contains" advisory warnings are voluntary right now and not required by law.

I know many moms want to accommodate allergic kids by home-baking foods and I really appreciate the sentiment. The problem is that if you use peanut butter or tree nuts in your home, you are making your baked goods in an environment that may not be safe for someone who is highly allergic.

I would suggest letting the moms of the allergic kids contribute their own "safe" baked goods. That is the best, safest and ultimately easiest thing for everyone.

Marie Salah, said...

I'm the class mom for my daughter's Gr.1 class. There are two children with nut allergies in the class, so we have been asked to bring in nut free treats. If your like me, I like to bake treats. I know there is no way of ensuring no cross contamination in foods in common use in the house, but what about surfaces? Say I prepare cupcakes, using a nut free mix, a can of pop (yes this does work) and nut free icing. Are the bowls, measuring spoons and pans nut free if they have been through the dishwasher? Does clearing and scrubbing the kitchen table ensure a nut free surface? Would a heavy plastic table cloth be better? Do I need dedicated cooking utensils, pans and bowls that are washed separately and kept in a sealed container?

Jenny said...

Hi Marie, I think it's great that you are trying to be safe. Do you see all of the variables your many questions will pose? Why take the risk? I would refer you to my comment above--home baking is not safe for a child with a severe nut allergy unless that home has no cross contact risk. All it takes is a trace amount to send a kid to the hospital or worse. So how about purchasing something with a label--I see you're in Canada so that will be much easier for you to find than it is for us in the U.S. I always recommend checking with the parents of the allergic kids. For example, I never let my daughter eat anything home baked(unless by me) and I know many other parents feel the same way. We need to be so cautious because ingestion can be fatal to our kids. Home baking is awesome and I love it too, but if you want to be safe for allergies, that's not the way to go. Good luck and best wishes!

Jenny said...

This comment just came in but for some reason it wouldn't publish, so I had to do it. Thank you to this reader and I hope you come back to the blog often!

I am just finding this blog years after it was posted but I just wanted to drop a line and say thank you! Your example of the knife being used in ph then butter and subsequently contaminating the baked goods- YES! My daughter is newly diagnosed and everyone seems to think I am crazy when I explain scenarios like that to them. No one understands, except other peanut/nut allergy moms. Unfortunately I know no other moms in my situation, or anyone else with a peanut/nut allergy for that matter! Thanks for making me not feel like such a dramatic mom!