Saturday, November 29, 2008

My Letter to the Editor in the Chicago Tribune

First of all, I hope that everyone had a joyous, allergy-free Thanksgiving.

I just wanted to share that my letter to the editor was printed today in response to the Chicago Tribune's recent food allergy/labeling investigative report.

Click here to read my letter in full. It's about halfway down the page, with the title "Food labels."

So far only two responses to the food allergy report were printed, but mine was one of them!

I'm glad they shared my side of the argument and I would urge all of you to write to your local papers if you agree--or don't agree--with food allergy stories that you read. The more of our voices that are heard, the better!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Things to Be Thankful For If You're a Nut-Free Parent

Even though Thanksgiving and all of its potential "nutty" foods add more stress to our already hectic schedules, we can find a few things to be grateful for this Thanksgiving Day. One thing you learn quickly as the parent of a food-allergic child is never to take any good times with food for granted.

Here are some things to be thankful for as a "nut-free mom" this year:

1. Our children. Yes, we spend a lot of time worrying about them, but they are beautiful and our reason for being. Their allergies force us to be more watchful, but they also force us to be more assertive and find out what goes into our food supply. Plus, they make sure we don't take ourselves too seriously--how can you when a toddler is making silly faces or you're hearing potty jokes from a kindergartner? Our kids are precious -- go give them a hug today.

2. If your child didn't have a reaction this year. We know how important it is to be thankful for that! I give thanks each time we go to a restaurant, a party or family gathering and my child doesn't have a reaction. If we make it through one whole year--it's party time!

3. If your child did have a reaction but they were OK. It's so scary when this happens, but we learn more caution and are prompted to take more safety measures if a reaction occurs, thereby preventing future reactions.

4. Family, spouses, friends, online support (like you readers). There's nothing like having a support system of people who help screen food for you at a function, care enough to ask questions at a restaurant, learn to use an Epi Pen or just let you vent. We couldn't do it without our support system.

5. Media who get it and are helping to spread the word. The recent Tribune reports, the major increase on food allergy stories in newspapers, magazines and on TV and the increase of food allergy bloggers shows us that this topic is getting more attention than ever before. With education comes knowledge, with knowledge comes tolerance. We're making big strides, even though it doesn't feel like it at times.

6. Ourselves. Time to pat yourselves on the back, nut-free parents. You made it through some tough times to get where you are and you're doing the best for your kids.

If you have any of your own, I'd sure love to hear them. Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you all have a wonderful, allergy-free day.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Whole Foods Gets Exposed in Tribune Special Report

Here is Part 2 of the Chicago Tribune ongoing special food allergy investigation. Turns out that Whole Foods isn't so wholesome when it comes to their food labels.
The photos above is of chocolate chunks I purchased at Whole Foods about a month ago. The package states that "good manufacturing practices are used to segregate ingredients in a facility that also processes milk ingredients."
Turns out that was not the case--the opposite was true. Plus, several of the store brand 365 Organic chips have also tested positive for hidden, undeclared nut allergens. I almost served these to my daughter after being thrilled to find "safe" chocolate chunks at Whole Foods. Their approach is totally unacceptable--and potentially dangerous.
Click this link to read the whole story.

I would advise all of us to skip the supermarket chips and order from Vermont Nut Free until labeling practices are reigned in. Those of you who need to use dairy-free chips, what are your current sources for those? I'd like to share that here. Let me know!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Food Allergies Are the Topic of New Chicago Tribune Special Report

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I turned to the front page of the Chicago Tribune today. They are featuring a special, ongoing report on food allergies.

Today's lengthy front page story discussed the increased incidence of food allergies--turns out now it's 1 in 25 kids. That's a lot of kids. Too many, in fact.

It also focused mostly on the whole issue of food labeling--something that has been discussed at length here and on other food allergy blogs and web sites. The article estimates that 30,000 Americans require ER treatment each year for food allergies. And guess which foods are the biggest culprits with regard to mislabeling and also incidence of reactions: cookies, cake, ice cream and candy. Note to all you moms out there who feel guilty when you don't let your food-allergic kids have the treats their friends are having--keep up the good work. This stuff can cause a reaction--it's OK to deny your kids if you're not sure about the product.

The link to the article is here, if you'd like to read the full story.

I really cannot tell you how thankful I am that this major newspaper has decided to run an ongoing investigation about food allergies. You know some of the online comments are gonna get nasty, but you know what--let's get it out in the open. This story is going to educate people and that will help dispel some of the ugliness.

I've written to the Tribune a couple of times regarding food allergy stories that they have run and usually the paper's bias was against people with food allergies. This time, it looks like our voices are going to be heard. We're being taking seriously.

1 in 25 kids. It's about time!

Let me know what you think of the article!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Things Are Still Nutty on "Top Chef," but the CIA Has Us Covered!

As someone who loves to cook, I'm a big fan of the reality show "Top Chef" on Bravo, yet as the mom of a nut-allergic child, I'm often appalled at the culinary atrocities committed with peanut butter and nuts in the name of "top chefdom."

I'm still haunted by Lisa's "Peanut Butter Mashed Potatoes" from last season (ugh!) not to mention Stephanie's tomato and peanut butter concoction that was supposed to be made just for kids. Horrors! Then, Stephanie Izard, last season's winner, had the judges in rapture at the finale over "braised pistachios" served with lamb.

This is concerning to me, not because I want to hinder any one's creativity in the kitchen, but because I wonder what it indicates for future eating trends in restaurants. Of course, adding more nuts to restaurant menus means less choices in dining and more danger for my daughter.

As the new "TC" season began, I waited to see how the cheftestants would try to stick nuts in their recipes and I didn't have to wait long. The chef booted off last night even used pecans in her quiche!! And for the "New American" restaurant menu challenge last night, one of the chefs served a form of peanut butter sandwich as dessert. Oh, great. As if I didn't have those staring me in the face everywhere I go in the first place! I'm not looking for PB&J in fine dining, even if I didn't have allergy concerns.

Unfortunately, "New America" (our kids) is peanut- and tree-nut allergic in increasing quantities. While I love dining out myself, I always think twice when I take my daughter and watching these "rising star" chefs stick peanuts and nuts everywhere puts me on alert. I've often wondered if or how the big culinary schools, such as Culinary Institute of America (CIA), is preparing their new chefs to deal with food allergies.

Luckily, the food allergy community has a fearless leader that is helping make restaurants safer for us as I write this. Recently, AllergicGirl posted that she helped the CIA prepare educational materials for their students. Hurray for Sloane Miller (aka Allergic Girl)!!! Here is the link to Allergic Girl's blog post about her new video. As a food-allergic adult who lives her life joyfully and attends restaurants frequently, Sloane is a wonderful role model for us and our kids. I applaud her for this and for all the other things she does.

If you're interested in seeing what the CIA has to say, here is the link to their food allergy page:
So even though Top Chef may be nuttier than ever, at least new chefs are getting training in food allergies, thanks to people like Sloane. And that's a huge step in the right direction!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Food Allergy Advocates and the Motrin Ad/Babywearing Uprising

Have any of you heard the blogger buzz about this online Motrin ad that offended "babywearing moms" (that is, mothers who believe in keeping their infants close to their bodies in a sling, for bonding reasons)?? Click this link to view this online ad:

Apparently, both Twitter and the mom bloggers who "babywear" were losing it over this ad, so much so that they were able to get the ad killed in like, one day! That's right--an online ad--killed due to the outrage of mothers who were offended by it.

This "news story" was all over the Internet today, and when I flipped open my local paper, The Chicago Tribune, this morning there was an article on the 3rd page about the Motrin ad/babywearing controversy.

I bring this up because we food allergy parents and advocates could learn something from this. After all, offending the notion of babywearing, in my humble opinion, does not pose the same risk to those kids as bad media attitudes towards food allergies does to ours.

I can think of so many mass media examples that send up deadly food allergies as comical or even ridiculous, attitudes received by millions of viewers and having very serious ramifications. For example, I was appalled by a scene in The Nancy Drew Movie, of a couple of summers ago. About halfway through, Nancy performs an emergency tracheotomy --using a pen-- on a girl who was allergic to peanuts and had "passed out" after kissing a boy who ate peanut butter cookies at a party. It was treated in the film as humorous example of Nancy's all-around intelligence and prowess. Imagine trying to console my severely peanut-allergic 7-year-old after seeing this scene. It was no fun. Obviously the "kissing" angle referred to the tragic true story of the Canadian teen who died after kissing a boy who ate peanut butter.

In "Meet the Robinsons" a cartoon character's head explodes due to a peanut allergy--and that is also supposed to be funny. And wasn't there a Will Smith, Eva Mendes movie where he had food allergies and his face swelled up horrifically--garnering huge laughs, of course.

I'm sure there are many other examples, but the point is--we need to speak out when we see stuff like this or even negative or inaccurate news stories. Our kids' collective health can be affected by negative media images about food allergies. I know that FAAN wrote protest letters to the film studios about the Nancy Drew movie and "Meet the Robinsons" but I did not read a thing about this in my local paper.

As the babywearers proved, by speaking out we can affect what images we see in the media--and at a much greater benefit to our kids!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Taming Holiday Stress for Nut-Free Parents, Part 2

Part of the stress that arises from dealing with a food allergy is that so many times something unexpected will crop up. That is especially true during the holidays where there is so much food, family parties and other activities that make a nut-free parent feel overwhelmed at times.

We may feel "hypervigilant." I'm sure you all know what I mean: The nagging feeling that you have to constantly scan the room and every potential danger for your child. Doesn't make for a very fun time, does it? That's one reason so many parents want to skip certain festivities and I'm all for doing this if you simply need a break. But most of the time, we can push through our fears and celebrate happily while keeping our kids safe.

My FAAN newsletter addresses this problem in the latest issue. One of the things that Lisa Provost discusses in her article "Managing Holiday Stress" is how to cope with unexpected situations. One suggestion I really liked was to appoint a family member, spouse or friend as your "support person" during the holidays. You may need someone to vent to, and it's good to know you've got someone to rely on ahead of time. (And hey, feel free to vent here!)

When you encounter an unexpected food allergy challenge this holiday season, Ms. Provost suggests the following tips:

- Take several deep breaths and consciously work to clear your head. This literally gives you breathing room to decide what you need.

- Mentally review your safety plan. There is much you cannot control, but being prepared, and reminding yourself that you are prepared, can lessen the anxiety.

- When you encounter judgment, resistance, or lack of empathy and understanding, find appropriate ways to express your feelings of anger, hurt, disappointment, anxiety and sadness. You may choose to state your feelings to the person involved or to remove yourself from the situation. Later you can discuss your feelings with a trusted friend, write in your journal, walk or do whatever you find most effective for managing intense emotions.

Many of us may travel during the holidays and that only adds to our stress. Besides actual travel concerns, we may worry that our child's needs may not be met at our destination. If we stay with relatives or friends that we see infrequently, we may rightly be concerned that they are not as familiar with our child's condition or needs.

I send an e-mail to my relatives a few weeks before a visit that outlines nut-free foods, meal preparation, etc. I do it in a very friendly way, but I get the point across. Also, I suggest an EpiPen "refresher course" for everyone who may be caring for your child during the holidays. I'm not saying to do this the second you arrive, right after the coats come off. But fairly early in the visit it doesn't hurt to remind everybody how to use the EpiPen and to see if anyone has questions for you.

There will be more on this later in the season and as always, I welcome your comments and tips!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Holiday Stress Management for Nut-Free Parents, Part 1

Ah, the holidays. They're meant to be relaxing and enjoyable and for the most part, they can be. But food allergies add another dimension to these joyous times, and most of us find our stress levels on the rise as they approach.

There are a lot of reasons for this but namely it's because the holidays involve so much FOOD! Yes, that's part of the fun but for us it also can cause major stress as we dodge those food allergy bullets that make life so interesting for us all year long. Oh dear, is that pine nuts in the stuffing? Did Aunt Mary make her famous pecan powdered sugar cookies and Oh My Gosh, did you say you're serving the cousins peanut butter at the sleepover??? Like many of you, I'm the one breaking out in hives at the thought of all of this stuff and I don't even have a food allergy myself.

Luckily, we're not alone. I recently received my wonderful FAAN newsletter and they cover all the ins and outs of what parents may be feeling as they get ready to deal with the stuffed turkey and cranberry sauce. So here is Part 1 of their excellent tips for dealing with holiday stress management, by Lisa Provost, M.S. N.C.C., L.M.H.C.

In a section entitled "Anticipating the Expected" she suggests the following tips:

- Role play with you and your child how to handle
any difficult situations you foresee

- Talk to an uncooperative family member
if you fear they won't be diplomatic

- Prepare a favorite allergen-free dish so
you're sure there will be something safe to eat

- Monitor an event at school so you can be
sure your child eats only safe foods

Good advice, all of it! I'll have more to share in future posts. And of course, I'd love to hear from you about your holiday stress tips!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Nut-Free News about Vanilla Extract!

With the holiday baking season upon us, (yum!) I've had several e-mails about the safety of vanilla and other baking extracts. This is obviously a big concern for those of us who bake nut-free because most companies also produce almond extract.

I contacted three of the biggest manufacturers of vanilla extract and baking products: McCormick, Nielsen-Massey and Wilton. I'm very happy to report that 2 out of 3 of them don't even use "real" almond for their almond extract. Wilton, as most of you may have discovered already, is the most challenging, since they do have peanuts and tree nuts in their facility, even though some items are not sharing production lines. If you'd like to use their products, I'd say it's your call to make. Also, you may have to do some digging about each individual product. Their response below contains more info.

OK, here's what each company had to say in response to my e-mails inquiring about the safety of their extracts.

McCormick: "McCormick and Co. does not use peanuts or tree nuts in any of our facilities. The Oil of Bitter Almond used in our Pure Almond Extract is extracted from apricot kernels, not the almond itself."

Nielsen-Massey: "All of our products are nut free. We do not process anything with tree nuts in our facility. In fact our Almond Extract is actually made from bitter almond oil which comes from stone fruit pits such as peaches. Please be assured that all of our products are safe from nut allergens."

Wilton: "I have attached a link from our website that displays our vanilla extracts and the following allergy information:

No Peanuts/treenuts in the product but there are peanuts/treenuts present in the facility

No Peanuts/Treenuts in the product but there are peanuts/treenuts present in the facility

As far as our sprinkles and decorations are concerned, because we are very specific when it comes to food allergies, if you would kindly provide me with a few stock numbers from our website of some decorations that you are interested in because we want to make sure that we provide you with the correct information."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Allergy-Free Recipe of the Month: Sweet Potato Corn Chowder

I've been posting a lot of baking recipes lately, so here's one for dinner or a hearty lunch. This comes from "Living Without Magazine." The sweet potatoes make it very autumnal, don't you think? And most kids like the taste of these vegetables all together.

Serve with some bread (gluten-free, if you like) and a green salad.

Sweet Potato Corn Chowder
Serves 6

4 ounces salt pork, slab bacon or pancetta, diced
1 large onion, peeled and diced
1 pound sweet potato, peeled and diced
4-5 cups gluten-free chicken or vegetable broth
3 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels, cooked until just tender
1 cup cream or plain soy or rice milk, heated
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

In a large soup pot, cook salt pork or bacon over medium heat until crisp, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove crisp pieces and place on a paper towel to drain. Reserve for later use.

Add onion to pot and sauté until translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Carefully drain off half of bacon grease and discard.

Put sweet potatoes in soup pot and add chicken stock to cover. Simmer over medium heat until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Puree half the corn in food processor or blender. Add puree and whole corn to sweet potatoes. Simmer until heated through, stirring often.

Just before serving, add hot cream or milk of choice. Stir in parsley. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Serve hot.

TIP: For vegetarian corn chowder, use 2 tablespoons oil or margarine instead of salt pork.

Each serving (made with cream) contains: 381 calories, 24g total fat, 10g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 43mg cholesterol, 37g carbohydrate, 366mg sodium, 5g fiber, 8g protein

Recipe by Rebecca Reilly.