Monday, September 29, 2008

Are Peanuts Good for You?

That was the question I overheard the other day while watching my kids play at the park. A cute little girl, about 4 or 5 years old, was getting pushed on the swings by her dad. I was sitting on a nearby bench and I couldn't help but hear her as she babbled away on the swing.

Of course, my ears always prick up at the word "peanuts" so I waited to her what Dad would say. He said "Well, yes I guess they are." I, and many of you, would disagree, because from our perspective it would be nice if they weren't thought of as kid "go-to" food. However, nutrionally speaking, peanuts are a good source of protein (though, I would argue, not nearly as great as they're cracked up to be. Fat, cholesterol, etc.)

So then, the little girl said "Well, I had my friend over today for lunch. She's allergic to peanuts. She almost ate a piece of peanut popcorn (I'm guessing a snack w/peanuts or peanut oil) and her mom got her away from it just in time."

They then carried on with their conversation and it shifted quickly to other topics. I thought it was so interesting, though! Obviously, this young girl was confused and concerned for her friend. If peanuts are so "good for you," why does her friend have to avoid them and carry and EpiPen? Why does her friend's mom have to do a quick "food interception" at a lunch and play date? (How many of you have had to run interference before a very young child went for a seemingly harmless food it turns out they can't have?)

I felt for this other mother--I don't even know her, but I know what she's going through. And how many other mothers had to perform a "food allergy rescue" that day or just stress about a simple lunch date with their kids? Too many--but they're not alone, as we know all too well.

Based on this young girl as well as the kids my daughter meets at school, it seems to me that more and more young children accept peanut allergies with aplomb. It's the adults (especially the "message board haters" ) that seem to have a bigger problem with it.

Acceptance of this condition will take years for our generation, if it comes at all. However, this young girl gave me a glimmer of hope, that future generations will just accept that a friend or acquaintance has to avoid certain foods and then go about their business.

Wouldn't that be great?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Kids "Owning" Their Food Allergies

Recently, my daughter and I had a discusion that made me realize how much she is growing up -- and how that will affect how she feels about her nut allergy. As she gets older, she wants less input from me on how to manage her activities (well, she is officially a "tween") and that spilled over into a discussion about the FAAN walk coming up in Chicago this weekend.

We've never been to this walk. Usually, it falls on my wedding anniversary, and we've had plans that interfered with us participating. This year, though, the weekend worked for us. A few weeks ago, I asked my daughter if she'd like to attend.

I was surprised by the vehemence of her response, which was a resounding NO. When I asked her why not, all the kids there would have food allergies and she'd feel supported, she had an interesting take on it.

She told me that joining an event revolving around food allergies would only emphasize to her that she's "different." She told me that she just wants to be thought of as a normal kid, not as a kid having a food allergy.

She also told me that I don't understand what it's like to have to worry about food at a friend's house, or when we go out to eat. She said she knows about the "secret" candy stash I keep on a high kitchen shelf and that she feels bad she can't have something that I can. (Busted.)

Basically, she told me that she appreciates my support but that she has to handle the food allergy thing as she feels best.

It was an eye-opener to me and I wonder if some of you have heard similar things from older kids with food allergies. My daughter is right: this is her condition and I need to respect her feelings about it. I don't blame her for wanting to feel like a "normal" kid. Even though I've assured her that she is a "normal" kid, anything little thing that makes a kid feel different is a very big deal to them. All of us can remember back to grade school and middle school, when "fitting in" was about the highest calling you could have.

It tugged at my heart, to be sure, when I thought about how right she was. She needs to "own" her own allergy. And the last thing I want to do is force her to participate in something that doesn't feel right to her, even if it is a very good cause. She's young enough not to grasp the ways a walk like this can help her and kids like her, and just old enough to be sensitive about it. Maybe someday her views will change as her understanding grows.

Now, she knows about this blog and she said it's OK with her. (She thinks it makes her "famous.") Still, I will be respectful of her here, too.

So, this year I will donate to the FAAN Walk for a Cure, but I won't walk with my daughter. Maybe we'll be there next year, maybe not. Either way, it will be her choice and I'll be where I always try to be: on her side.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Recent Buzz on Food Allergy Labeling and My "Marketplace" Mention

In tandem with the FDA allergy labeling discussion going on today, NPR's "Marketplace" show did an item on food allergies and food labeling last night. And guess what--my blog got a mention! In July I wrote a post called "Is It Me, Or Are Allergy Labels Getting Way Wackier??" They summarized this post in the story. Follow this link to read/listen to the story on NPR. It felt great to have my blog mentioned right next to a quote from one of my food allergy heroes, Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of FAAN.

It's always nice for your blog to be given a "shout-out" in the media, but the most important thing about this story is that it illustrates how dire the need is for consistent food labeling. The Marketplace story also brought up the issue that many of us have discussed lately and that is the fact that manufacturers don't want to spend money to have consistent food labels, and so they are just labeling everything "may contain the top 8 allergens." I know that so many companies are struggling right now and I sympathize, but there has to be a better way.

There's been a lot of buzz about food labels lately and I've got another great article on this topic for you to check out. This month's Chicago Parent magazine features a story called "Mom Takes on Food Industry" about one mother's efforts to make food manufacturers more aware about their labeling practices after her food-allergic son got very ill after eating a mislabeled food item.

I'm very interested to see what the FDA has to say today. Stay tuned!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Poll Results--What Is Your Biggest "Nut-Free Parent Challenge?"

Thanks to everyone who participated in my poll, "What's Your Biggest Challenge as a Nut-Free Parent?"

Here's what you had to say:

According to the numbers, the most difficult challenge was "educating others about your child's food allergy." 33% of you voted for this one.

Coming in second was "Restaurants" (23%) followed by "School"(19%) and then, unfortunately, "Family members and friends who don't get it" (14%). "Travel" weighed in at 9%.

Nobody voted for "Child care" or "Play dates" which leads me to believe that many of the respondents are the parents of very young kids. When our kids are preschool age or younger, we have a much bigger hand in controlling their environments. And most preschools these days seem to be nut-free. It seems that once we get out of that realm is when we feel challenged.

I'm sorry to hear that family members, especially, aren't "getting it." The way to deal with that is by gently educating them and of course, not leaving our children with them (alone) until we're sure they do get it. I would hope that grandparents and close family members can be reasoned with on this issue--what have some of you done to accomplish this?

As far as "educating others" what do you think is the best way to do this? Personally, I'd love to give everybody a short handbook on nut allergies and ask them to read it. I'd recommend that we all make use of the brochures we find at our allergists' offices and take one home for grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Referring our family and friends to relevant news articles and yes, even blogs like this one, may also help.

The FAAN website is also a good place to refer people--I've had good success with that one.

Again, thanks for your participation. I'll have another poll up soon. It's helpful to see the areas in which we need the most support!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How's School So Far??

Many of us have had school in session for at least a week now and I am curious to see how things have been going. Also, I've been getting several e-mails and posts regarding school issues. It seems that this is the big thing on all of our minds right now! (Of course, besides our increasingly "interesting" political landscape, but that's a whole 'nother blog!) :)

As many of you know, my kids started a new school this year and I had a LOT of anxiety about how the whole nut allergy thing would be handled. I know that my daughter was anxious about how the other kids would regard her allergies.

I'm happy to report that so far, so good. Of course, it's early yet but I feel pretty good about the school is handling things. For example, when I needed to change my daughter's food allergy emergency plan a bit, they responded positively and quickly. Before school even began, I was asked to meet with all of the 3rd grade staff to discuss my daughter's allergies. Her classmates have been great, too. All the girls like her "fashionable" pink-and-red allergy ID bracelet, which certainly helped her get over her self-consciousness about wearing it!

We've only been in school for two weeks, but already we've been hit with a lot of decisions and issues related to food allergies (and yes, I'm the 3rd grade Treats Mom again this year!), so I'm sure some of you have some stories to share. Has anything unusual cropped up for you? How are you handling it?

And let's not forget the teachers. They're a big part of our food allergy "team" and I hope we all are having a positive experience working with them. Some of them are old pros at the allergy thing and some are learning for the first time, but they all care about kids and they can be some of our best allies at school.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Does Peanut Butter Still Have to = Back-to-School??

I'm curious--with school back in session have any of your local papers run any food feature stories lately paying homage to peanut butter as "that good, old-fashioned" school lunchbox food??

I only ask because earlier this week, on the 2nd day of school for Chicago public school kids, the Chicago Tribune Good Eating section ran a huge feature about peanut butter. The title page read:"The time is ripe for a peanut butter resurgence. Spread the love" with large pictures of peanut butter dripping off of a spoon, peanuts scattered about randomly and peanut butter cookies stacked up on a plate.

The picture alone was a turn-off, as was the first line of the story: "During the back-to-school rush, we think of peanut butter as a front runner in the lunchbox sandwich brigade."

Oh, we do???? And why does peanut butter need a "resurgence?" Unfortunately, it hasn't exactly gone out of style.

Where have these editors been? Even if your school does not support a peanut butter ban (more on this in a minute) most parents these days are familiar with food allergies, particularly peanut allergies. And many families, like many of you out there reading this right now, deal with food allergies in your own family.

My first thought (after ugh!) was "How archaic are these editors?" And my second thought was: "How insensitive are these editors?"

Like many of you, I've just spent that last several weeks filling out allergy forms, getting prescriptions ready, calling doctors, instructing others on safe foods and EpiPen usage, getting an allergy ID bracelet, and so on, etc., etc.

For this story to appear on the 2nd day of school was, I felt, a slap on the face to everyone who has approached their school on the dangers of peanut butter for food-allergic kids. I just have a gut feeling that someone, somewhere at the Tribune food department has to be ticked that their kid can't bring peanut butter to school, or has to curtail their consumption of peanut products at school. Otherwise, I can't account for their need to promote a peanut butter "resurgence."

Even given the fact that I'm admittedly sensitive to peanut butter being promoted as a "go to" lunch food for school children, I wouldn't have minded a story simply about peanut butter. It's their right to write about whatever they want. Some of my favorite food magazines have written peanut butter features--though those stories are generally geared towards adults cooking for themselves.

But here's where the Tribune story added insult to injury. To accompany their feature, the paper also ran an AP story called "Backlash to school peanut ban has unlikely allies." This story, which quoted some hideous "message board" responses to one school's attempts to institute a peanut ban, also quoted Anne Munoz-Furlong (head of FAAN) as being one of these "unlikely allies." FAAN does not support a peanut ban in elementary schools, due to the fact that they don't want to promote a false sense of security, thereby leaving allergic kids even more vulnerable.

You may or may not agree with that logic, but I think most of us agree that FAAN would never consider itself an ally of the hatred that is spewn by many of the people who oppose a peanut ban. Yet, the story implied FAAN is on the side of the sort of whackadoodle who suggested on a school message board that the solution to food allergies in schools is to kill all the kids who have peanut allergies: problem solved. And every single food allergy parent quoted in the article said something like "I don't want my kids in a bubble." Hmmm...have any of you heard that one before? Like any us want our kids in a bubble--the point is we want them to live and be well. Big difference.

One woman even said she trusted her 7-year-old to self-administer his EpiPen in an emergency, stating that he was "smart." Well, so is my kid but according to my doctor self-medication is not recommended until at least middle school.

I'm not making this stuff up: read the story yourself. Even worse, the print version of this story was accompanied by a photo of a woman wielding an EpiPen in front of her young son with a big smile on her face. The message I took away: "Look, peanut allergies aren't that serious, in fact, they're really kind of fun! See my big smile?" Clueless, clueless, clueless.

The fact that some people don't want to be inconvenienced by a peanut butter ban does not negate the life-threatening nature of peanut allergies. The fact that the Tribune ran an AP story implying that food-allergic families' concerns about peanut butter are basically without merit was, I felt, an attempt to justify their peanut butter cover feature.

The massive increase in food allergies among school children is old news at this point. Why did the the Tribune choose to run these stories, at this particular time? As we know all too well, NO ONE needs to be told to pack peanut butter in their lunch. They already do. Why promote it??? It's not like it's a new and exotic food.

As the people who read this blog regularly know, I like to stay positive about this topic. And I truly believe that life with nut allergies can be managed so that our kids can live happy, normal lives. Usually, this type of stuff doesn't get me down all that much. I know what I have to do.

So: news stories like these simply tell me that as parents of food allergic kids, we have a lot more work to do. Maybe we're not getting the message across clearly enough that peanut allergies are serious, can kill and need to be mitigated. Or we are, and people are choosing not to believe it.

By the way, I'm not suggesting that peanut bans are always the answer. But I don't think they should ever be off limits. Some schools may need them more than others--it's a very complicated topic. My daughter's current school does not have a peanut ban, and I'm confident she'll be fine. But I'm just one parent. All of us with food-allergic kids deserve to have our voices heard.

I wrote a letter to that editor outlining everything I just stated here. That's a start, but I give all of us the challenge: do everything you can to educate your communities about this. Education is the best enemy of hatred and ignorance. And it will keep our precious kids safer in the long run.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Recipe of the Month--Nut-Free Cinnamon Coffee Cake

Here it is: my first
Free Recipe of the Month."

While this particular recipe is "nut-free," it does contain dairy and wheat.

I developed this recipe because my family loves coffee cake and this recipe normally contains walnuts for crunch and flavor. Instead, I use a streusel topping that adds flavor and crunch without the nuts. It gets raves and with fall upon us, the cinnamon flavors are appealing.

I welcome allergy-specific modifications to any recipes posted here and also invite you to submit dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free and of course, nut-free recipes. I'll give you full credit and a link to your web site or blog.

Please also note my new link to the right of this post: "The Welcoming Kitchen" under the heading "Nut-Free Food." It's a great new cookbook featuring recipes free from ALL top 8 food allergens. Most are also gluten-free.

Nut-Free Cinnamon Streusel Coffee Cake

Special equipment: a 9-inch tube pan with removable bottom

For the cake:

2/3 plus 1-3/4 cups sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
3 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 container (16 oz) sour cream

For the nut-free streusel topping:

1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp. flour
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tbsp. butter, cold

1. In a small bowl, combine streusel ingredients by either rubbing together with your fingers or using a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Set aside.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour 9- to 10-inch tube pan with removable bottom. In small bowl, combine 2/3 cup sugar and 1 tsp. cinnamon. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

3. In large bowl, with mixer at low speed, beat butter and remaining 1-3/4 cups sugar until blended, frequently scraping bowl with rubber spatula. Increase speed to high; beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, occasionally scraping bowl. Reduce speed to low; add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.

4. Add flour mixture and sour cream, alternating between the two. Mix until thoroughly combined, but do not overbeat.

5. Spoon 1/3 of batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle about one cup cinnamon-sugar mixture evenly over batter, then top with half of remaining batter. Sprinkle evenly with 1/2 cup more cinnamon-sugar mixture; top with remaining batter, then sprinkle with reserved streusel mixture. Sprinkle more cinnamon-sugar over top of streusel if desired, for added sparkle and crunch.

6. Bake coffee cake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 1 hour, 10 minutes. (Check after one hour). Cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes. Run thin knife around cake to loosen from side and center tube of pan; lift tube to separate cake from pan side. Invert cake onto plate; slide knife under cake to separate from bottom of pan. Turn cake, streusel side up, onto to wire rack to cool completely. Serves 16.