Friday, February 26, 2010

Food Allergies Can't Keep a Good Girl Down

My oldest daughter will be 10 years old tomorrow (omg...that's the double digits as she likes to say) and it's given me time to reflect about our journey with nut allergies up till now.

I know that I've discussed our big and small triumphs here in the past (most recently with my post "Thriving with a Nut Allergy"). However, something about this "double digit" birthday makes me really grateful for how far we've come since our family first learned of Alex's life-threatening allergy to nuts.

A lot of you are reading this blog because you've recently discovered your own child's allergy. I find out when my child was 4 years old and I know that many of you learned sooner. When you first get this diagnosis, it's so scary and can seem really disheartening once you realize how much it affects daily life. I still have my good days and bad days.

However, as my daughter reaches her 10th birthday, I'm very proud of how much she's been able to do and how confident she has become about handling her allergy issues.

For those of you new to this, here is some of my advice, some of it learned the hard way. :)

- Never let your child feel like they can't do something just because of their allergy. In fact, we've sometimes given our daughter a gentle nudge out into the world to prove that she can handle certain situations. Now that she's older, she initiates independence. That's really important to us since she is the one who will be caring for her allergy in the future.

- Be cautious, but keep things as normal as possible. Caution is key but so is a normal childhood in terms of things like birthday parties, camp and extracurricular activities. If you take all the proper precautions things will generally go well. Volunteering to help out at these activities when your kids are younger will help both of you feel more secure. Most important, don't focus too much on your child being the "allergy kid" beyond making certain an activity is safe for them.

- On the other hand, don't beat yourself up for the things you can't do. Trying every new restaurant is just not on our family agenda; likewise, sleepovers are off-limits except for very close friends of the family who we trust. Some things just aren't worth it and we stick to firm rules about them. Instead of focusing on what we can't do safely, we celebrate the things that we can.

- Realize that as your child gets older, your role as a parent must adapt to their growing independence. My daughter often reminds me these days that she knows what to do about her allergy and not too hover over her too much. In fact, there have been several situations where she exercised caution all on her own. She's still too young to be completely free of parental involvement, but I try to show her that I trust her to handle things when appropriate. It's been a real confidence-booster for her as well as a lesson in taking charge of her own allergy.

Now the flip side: Vigilance around high-risk foods can never let up. Until there is a cure for nut allergies, the risk of reaction must never be discounted. Sometimes we let our guard down if we've gone a long time without a reaction. This is a mistake--you can never plan when a reaction will occur. Stay vigilant with regard to foods and situations and keep teaching your child to stay vigilant while still encouraging their independence.

Just so everyone knows, I'm hosting next week's "Living with Food Allergies Blog Carnival" so if you're an allergy blogger, please submit an article. I need them in by March 3rd (next Wednesday). Thanks!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Peanut Butter and Bagels

The information I'm about to share is not to scare anyone away from dining out, but I think it points to the awareness we need to have at all times. It's not only about what food is offered at a restaurant or establishment and not only how the food is prepared. You've also got to ask yourself--WHO is handling the food.

Here's what my husband and I observed at a bagel shop on Sunday morning. (This was without the kiddos; they were with their aunt.)

While in downtown Chicago at a national bagel chain, my husband noticed a shop employee taking a jar of peanut butter out of her bag and preparing an elaborate peanut butter-centric meal involving all manners of fruits, breads and PB. LOTS of PB--she brought her own jar, for goodness sakes! This was being eaten in the customer area (so if anyone hasn't bought into the idea of putting down a "place mat" on the table when you dine out with your allergic child please reconsider--you never know who was eating what before you sat down.)

The actions of this restaurant employee raised all sorts of red flags to me because what happened after the employee had eaten her meal? Was she going to carefully wash off every trace of peanut butter before serving customers? Did she know she was potentially setting up a scenario for cross-contact that could adversely affect consumers? So far, Massachusetts is the only state requiring food allergy education for restaurant workers. Obviously, this education is needed everywhere--not just one state.

The other thing this incident points to is that while a restaurant or fast food joint may not have peanut butter on the menu, who knows what is going on behind the scenes? Even if you haven't seen one too many episodes of "Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares" like I have, this is something to think about. It just proves that you want to stick to the cleanest, most professional, most hygienic places you can. That's not bad advice for anyone dining out but for food-allergic people it's a must.

The bagel shop we were eating at does offer PB as a topping for the bagels, and some of the bagels occasionally have nuts on them. I would probably not take my daughter there since I categorize a bagel shop as a small bakery and therefore, off limits.

But it sure got me thinking about the places we go and who is making the food. I always ask myself a few questions before dining out:

- First and foremost, does the place serve peanut butter food items? If so, do they prepare them in a confined area? Are the staff aware of the cross-contact dangers? Ask. Their answers will tell you a lot about whether or not you want to eat there. Pot Belly Sandwich Works does a good job of segregating peanut butter from the other ingredients but still, human error is always a factor.

- Who is working there? Is it staffed by young college students who may or may not be strict professionals about food service? Are they eating on the job?

- Have you done your homework about a place or are you just stopping in? If possible, stick to places where you know the menu and the general approach to food service. If this is not possible, don't settle if you think the place doesn't "get" food allergies. Better safe than sorry. And luckily, many places do get it now. Still, staying vigilant is always best.

I'm sure this bagel shop worker was a nice person who just wanted a quick snack on her break, but when she opened that jar of peanut butter she opened a can of worms. I'm going to shoot an e-mail to the manager of the store to let him or her know what I observed. And I definitely won't be taking my daughter to there.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Babies and Food Allergies

I just read this article in Chicago Parent about new research about introducing solid foods in babies. The timing of solids is thought to have an effect on later development of food allergies.

When my kids were babies, we were told to hold off on solid foods until 6 months of age. Now, the new research (discussed in the Chicago Parent article) shows that babies should be given solids at 4 months of age. This is thought to possibly prevent the development of food allergies.

Medical disclaimer alert! Of course, every baby is different, so please always consult your own doctor about the introduction of solids. Thank you. :)

I don't know about many of you, but I had no choice but to give my two kids solids younger than 6 months. Way younger. (I got the OK from the pediatrician, of course.) My babies were huge and they were hungry. Interestingly, one child developed food allergies and one didn't. This new research raises more questions for me, defintely.

The whole idea of babies getting diagnosed with food allergies is very interesting to me because I didn't know about my daughter's nut allergies until she was in preschool. I can imagine how difficult this would be for parents of infants -- what would you do about introducing new foods, for example. And of course, the introduction of babysitters takes on a whole new level of stress.

On a freelance writing note, I'm interested in writing about this issue for a local magazine, so any of you Chicago-area parents who have young babies getting diagnosed with food allergies, please send me an e-mail. I'd love to hear from you if you wouldn't mind sharing some of your experience with me for a future interview. I have a few sources already but I can always use more.

No matter where you live, I'd love to hear about your concerns in caring for food-allergic babies. What support and info do you need? Let us know.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Canadian Food Allergen Labeling: May Contain Nuts?

Calling all Canadians!! I know that I have a lot of Canadian readers, so let us know about the labeling practices there. I'm sure they're somewhat similar since Canada and the U.S. have so many shared products but have you noticed any differences?

Labels are on my mind a lot these days since I have been getting so many reader questions and have been having my own questions.

One thing I wonder about is the use of "may contains" labeling. Do you find that frequently on Canadian products and do you trust it? I've also noticed that some products that are U.S. based, when sold in Canada, have "nut-free" versions we don't have here. One example is Quaker Oats granola bars. What are some others?

Any input is welcome about labeling woes in Canada--or maybe you can tell us what you're doing better than the U.S.

Thanks in advance for the info!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Everything Changes...Especially Allergy Warnings on Food Labels!

With Valentine's Day right around the corner, you're probably looking for candy that's safe or screening candy given to your child by others. I thought it was time for a little "label reading review" since it's become confusing over the years.

Hard to believe, but I've been writing this blog for more than two years. In that time I've discussed the safety of several foods for nut allergies and my number one piece of advice is always to read the label. Not to say that they are foolproof, but they are a great place to start.

And of course, labels change. Occasionally what was once labeled "safe" for nut allergies gets a new allergy advisory warning. Especially with the spotty way that companies are responding to the needs of consumers, you have to be vigilant with labels. Jay's brand OkeDoke popcorn is one example. We used to buy it until one day it had a nut allergy warning (along with several other food allergens) on its new packaging.

These changes can happen for many reasons: new managers, new recipes, new lines used for processing. You just never know so check your labels often.

Occasionally, you'll see a food recalled with no warnings on the label. I am on a food allergy recall alert list through my membership with FAAN ( and you can also visit their web site to see the latest allergen recalls.

Another site to check for allergy alerts on foods is Kids With Food Allergies.

Now, back to your basic food label reading. I make every effort to keep up with the changing labels of foods I use often and I will post any changes I find here. However, just be aware that just because a company web site no longer lists specific allergens on the web page, it doesn't mean you won't get accurate info from the actual food label. This happened recently with Sweet Tarts Candy Hearts made by Willy Wonka (Nestle foods.) The web site no longer give a list of specific allergens, just refers to the fact that some Willy Wonka candies may contain food allergens.

The package I have at home (bought a couple of weeks ago) says "Processed in a facility that handles eggs and wheat." That's pretty clear and with that level of detail and no mention of nut allergens, I would feel OK with that product.

Of course you can always call the company but check for their office hours--usually right near the customer service number. Sometimes they are only open until 5 pm or earlier -- a few are open until later in the evening. If you call and don't get an answer, try again and avoid the food until you have the info you need. Remember, nothing substitutes the saying "When in doubt, do without."

Most large food companies will let you know about the top 8 allergens on the label, so please read the labels. If allergy info is simply not present, I'd make a call or send an e-mail.

Any time I've called customer service lines, one of the things they tell me is to check each label, each time for each product. So start there, and then you'll be ready with specific questions so you can get the best answers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Concession Stands, Basketball and Letting Go

Now that my daughter is nearly 10, she's been wanting to do more with friends. This is good and only natural but of course for kids with severe food allergies, letting go is a little harder. I've always tried to be consistent with our rules about eating so that she will stick to them when she's away from home.

Last weekend, my daughter was invited to a high school championship basketball game and she was very excited to attend. We fed her a good-sized dinner complete with dessert to make sure she wouldn't be tempted to eat uncertain foods, asked her not to eat at the game (we said she could get a drink) and offered to pack a snack. She declined the snack and we sent her on her way.

I am happy to have her be invited to things, but I always worry a little bit when I know she'll be around food and I have no idea what it is. Sure enough, not only was there a concession stand but my daughter was offered sandwiches from the "coach's lounge" (privilege of attending the game with the daughter of a teacher--woohoo!).

My daughter declined the foods (she wasn't hungry--thanks to the big meal) and that was that. She was very secure in doing this and it was not a big deal.

One thing she pointed out to me was that the concession stand offered unpackaged foods like fresh popcorn and nachos. She also noticed Snicker's bars behind the counter.

The concession stand was being staffed by two teenage girls and my daughter noticed they were eating while they served customers. Nothing wrong with that, except my daughter said that she would probably not buy a non-packaged food (like fresh popcorn or nachos) from someone eating an unknown substance, like maybe a Snicker's bar. I admit that I hadn't thought of that aspect, but I'm glad she did.

Letting go isn't easy, but it looks like she's got some strong self-preservation instincts so I can feel pretty good about that. We're also teaching her to use an EpiPen and that will also help her to feel more secure when she's out and about.

When you've got a fairly young child diagnosed with nut allergies, you might think you have to follow them forever, that you'll never be able to let them out on their own. I learned that if you teach them reasonable caution, they'll get it. Sooner or later, they'll get it. In basketball terms, my daughter scored a 3-pointer that night.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to make sure they've got a full stomach before sending them out there. :)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Nut-Free Info for Cake Mate

I get a lot of questions about safe, nut-free cake and cookie decorations such as "sprinkles." Especially in the last few weeks, you all want to know about sprinkles! I guess everybody is doing a lot of baking at the moment.

I have used Cake Mate products (made by Signature Brand) for years. I've called them in the past about possible nut allergens and was advised that their labels would reflect this. This does seem to be the case; however, in response to several comments and e-mails I've received recently, I contacted them again for an official list of items to avoid.

The good news is that most sprinkles (with a few exceptions; see below) and other Cake Mate decorations such as holiday or birthday-themed cake and cupcake decorations are "safe" for nut allergies. That said, please check the labels each and every time.

The following is a list of Cake Mate items to avoid. The items listed below either contain nuts or were processed on lines that many contain nuts. Don't use them:

Marble Mixins
Parlor Perfect
Cake Make Fruit Flavored Decor
Cake Mate 26 oz Rainbow Sprinkles (UPC code--5210032626)
Cake Mate 26 oz Chocolate Sprinkles (UPC code--5210030247)

Also, the Cake Mate rep reminded us to always read the labels for any ingredients updates or line changes.

You can also call the company Helpline for more info: 877-726-8793. The line is open M-F, 8-5, CST.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Nut-Free Party Treats for School

The last few weeks my inbox has seen a slew of questions from non-allergic moms wanting to know what to a) bring to the class holiday party or b)what to serve to nut-allergic guests at a birthday party. I'm happy to hear from them because I appreciate their regard for kids with serious dietary restrictions. You rock--thanks for your concern.

Regarding the class party question, it's really tough to find the perfect "safe" edible treat to serve. For one thing, something that might look OK may turn out not to be.

If you're involved in planning or bringing food to a class party, make sure to get the allergic families involved. I usually send in something I know is safe for my daughter--as long as she has something good to eat, she doesn't care if she can't have everything.

Another thing to consider: Labels change so frequently these days that what might look safe one day is not safe the next. This happened to us when we put Jay's OkeDoke Popcorn on our own safe list a few years ago. A few weeks later on a trip to the store, I discovered that a new nut allergy warning had appeared. It's hard enough for allergic families to keep up with the label changes, much less anyone not used to dealing with it. Why go to all the trouble of searching for a food that the allergic kids can't eat anyway? It just makes sense to ask the allergic families to contribute. Believe me, we prefer it and are happy to do it.

Plus, many classrooms contain multiple food allergies. You may search all over to find nut-free only to find out another child has a milk or dairy allergy.

If your child is celebrating a birthday during the school year or if you want to send in a little something for a holiday (like Valentine's Day), my favorite suggestion is to offer non-edible treats. Some schools are limiting edible treats anyway for both allergy and nutritional reasons.

I was at Target recently and I discovered many Valentine's themed pencils (10 for $1), small toys and such in their dollar section. Kids love this type of thing. Or what about stickers and plastic rings--you can find these at many discount or party stores for decent prices. Kids also love colorful small notepads to write and/or draw on.

If you really want to serve an edible treat, tell the teacher in advance so the allergic kids can bring something safe to eat. That's really the best option for everyone.

For birthday parties, non-allergic families should always ask the parents of the allergic child for advice on what to serve. We'll either offer to bring some safe options or provide you with some safe brand ideas, etc.

I always stress the party aspect rather than the food aspect to my own child. From a young age, allergic kids learn that they have to say "no" to certain foods. Don't worry that you'll offend the kids and risk offering them something that they may not be able to have. Our bottom line is staying out of harm's way and sometimes that means that allergic party attendees will eat their own treat.

One nice thing is to tell the allergic family what treat you will be serving--for example, yellow cupcakes with blue frosting. Then, the nut-free caregivers can recreate it as closely as possible (just make sure you keep the "safe" cupcake away from the other ones). This is especially important for the younger kids who really get excited about sweets.

What has worked for you? Let us know.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Just in Time for Valentine's Day...Nut-Free Bakery Roundup

"Where can I find a nut-free bakery?" This frequent question is what inspired this blog post, so I hope you enjoy the following suggestions. I've talked about many of these before and you can find them in my "Nut-Free Foods" section of the blog, but since I seem to have a lot of new readers, I thought it was high time we had a nut-free bakery roundup. The list I've compiled is by no means representative of every bakery out there, but every one on list is a dedicated, nut-free bakery that I've personally shopped from or had recommended to me by trusted sources. All of the bakeries below are available for online order.

A couple of them are dairy-free and egg-free as well!

A & J Nut-Free Bakery. Nut-Free. Located in Rhode Island, this Italian-style bakery (yum!) is completely nut-free. They offer all types of baked goods including Valentine's Day themed goodies. I've had many good reviews from this bakery so give them a try. If you live in the area, lucky you--you can stop in.

Divvies. Egg-free, dairy-free, nut-free. This allergy-friendly sweet treat mecca offers baked goods such as cookies and cupcakes. Divvies treats are individually packaged and you may have seen them for sale in cafes and coffee shops. Some of their candies make great cake decorations, too. Check them out!

Little Rae's Nut-Free Bakery. Nut-free only. This Seattle-based bakery now offers Valentine's Day decorated shortbread cookies that look divine. I've ordered their cookies and they are delish. Plus, the people that work there are darn nice. The owner is himself allergic to peanuts so these people really get it.

O'My Goodness Bakery. Nut-free only. Located in Illinois, this bakery is nut-free and is dedicated to creating beautiful decorated cookies. Take a look at the site for their current selection of themed cookie treats.

Sweet Alexis Bakery. Nut-free, dairy-free, egg-free. Based in California, this wonderful bakery produces baked goods made with lots of love that taste absolutely delicious. Their quick breads are particularly good, but right now they're selling plain V-Day cookies perfect for cookie decorating parties. The owner is the mom of child with food allergies.

It's great to support these bakeries whenever possible. They provide the ultimate safe choice for the nut-allergic because they don't process any peanuts or tree nuts.

Be sure to tell them I sent you and please tell me what you think after ordering! I hope this gives all of you some great Valentine's Day ideas.

Monday, February 1, 2010

What Is a Nut-Free Cupcake?

"Is there a nut-free bakery in Chicago?" is one of the most frequent questions I receive. Luckily, there is a terrific peanut and tree nut-free cupcake bakery in the Chicago suburbs: Nutphree's! They have recently opened a storefront in Mount Prospect and I couldn't be happier to have them. You can also order from them online.

The Chicago area's premiere peanut and tree nut-free cupcake bakery!
However, nut-free bakeries are still pretty rare and I bring up the topic for two reasons. One, I've been getting the nut-free bakery question with increasing frequency the last few weeks. And two, many bakeries that serve all manner of peanut and tree nut treats are claiming they can create a "nut-free" cupcake that's safe for allergic people. This is what I'm seeing not only in Chi-town but all over the country.

What is a nut-free cupcake for the purposes of a severely allergic individual? That would be one that is created in a dedicated nut-free facility. Now, I'm talking about supermarket and storefront bakeries right now. You know, the ones you like to sidle up to on a Saturday morning. Mass-produced baked goods have different standards, etc. and different regulation.

Most of you are aware that supermarket bakeries now carry allergy advisory signs somewhere in the baked goods section. That's because there is just too much risk of cross-contact in these small bakeries. If a small bakery is serving pecan pie and peanut butter cookies, I'd be concerned about serving an allergic person their products.

Here are two other red flag terms for nut-allergic people when evaluating a bakery: vegan and gluten-free. The vegan diet has tree nuts and peanuts as staple; gluten-free can often mean that ground up nut flours have been substituted for wheat. When I see vegan and gluten-free, I head for the hills. Personally, I wouldn't serve anything to my daughter that was created in a vegan and/or gluten-free environment unless the place was also dedicated nut-free.

Many bakeries see "nut-free" or "allergy-free" as a marketing tool. They don't realize (or choose not to acknowledge) that nut-free to a nut-allergic person is a health matter. And a serious one at that.

In my opinion, sticking to dedicated nut-free bakeries (and the U.S. does have several that ship across the country) makes the most sense.

Baking at home is also a great option if you're dealing with nut allergies. For example, you can bake cupcakes, leave them unfrosted, wrap them individually and then freeze them. Frost them as needed for parties or events. It's pretty easy and saves a ton of worry--and unnecessary risk.

Here are a few grocery items to have on hand at all times for nut-free baking: white and brown sugar (I use Domino brand), vanilla extract (McCormick or Nielsen-Massey are my choices), confectioner's sugar (Domino's again), all-purpose flour, old-fashioned oats, salt, baking powder, baking soda, McCormick food colorings, nut-free/allergy-free candies for decoration (check my Nut-Free Foods list for ideas.) Wilton and Cake Mate also have some safe options for nut allergies, so check the labels. I'm waiting to hear from Cake Mate about a list of nut-free cake decorations as I write this. I'll let you know. Don't feel like baking from scratch? Try the Cherrybrook Kitchen mixes and frostings. These allergy-free mixes are available at most well-stocked supermarkets. If you're looking for cake molds, cookie sheets, cookie cutters, etc. check out the Wilton baking section at your local craft store. They have a treasure trove for the home baker.

I will have my nut-free bakery roundup later this week. Please let me know your favorites so I can add them to my list.