Required Reading: Remembering to Read the Label, Even When You’re Comfortable…

Everyone always tells you, never visit the grocery store when you’re hungry. With a rumble in your stomach, everything on the shelves can start to look delicious. From chips, to cookies, to mashed potatoes, you’d buy just about anything to sate the hungry in your stomach. Satisfying your “hangrier” self can be a bit tricky when you have multiple food allergies. A grocery store can suddenly become a library of required reading with a hefty test at the end before you can go home and eat.

With so many labels to read and so much fine print to understand, it’s easy to get complacent and glance over ingredients with glazed eyes. Sometimes we can become too comfortable when it comes to brands or foods we’ve known and used for some time. My thought process in a store has bounced between, “it’s always been safe,” or “I’ve never had an issue with their other products,” and regrettably even, “this looks good I’ll read it later.” I’ve been guilty of making the mistake of throwing a commonly used brand product into my basket without reading the label, assuming it will be fine. However, a recent experience with a familiar brand taught me to take the few extra seconds no matter how busy I am, and always read the ingredients no matter what.

A crumbling experience: There is a brand of crackers I’ve trusted for as long as I can remember. Normally when I go grocery shopping I read every boxed or canned item I put in my basket. This routine started by my mom who would let me read ingredient labels after her and would quiz me about what’s safe, what isn’t and why. But that day, for a myriad of reasons and silly excuses I grabbed a box of crackers, a new flavour that looked good and put it in my basket. I went on my way busily preparing for a potluck the next day. For some reason, I didn’t even think twice about reading the ingredients for the crackers in my basket. I assumed, like all other flavours from the brand, that it was safe, and you know what they say when you assume… I got the other items to make a yummy dip to pair with my box of crackers and went on my way.

It wasn’t until the next day when I was plating the crackers, mere minutes before my guest arrived that I noticed something odd about these crackers. On the outside, they seemed fine but once cracked open there were seeds, sesame seeds to be exact, something I am allergic to and something that had never been on or in this brand of crackers before. I was dumbfounded and frankly disappointed with myself for not reading the ingredients list beforehand. After that night, and narrowly avoiding a reaction, I promised myself no matter how comfortable or familiar, I will always read every label and ingredient before I buy anything.

I was able to avoid a reaction that night but found myself wondering how many times I may have put myself at risk in the past because I forgot to read ingredients or was overly comfortable with a brand. As we get older, day-to-day errands can be overwhelming and sometimes reading every label in the grocery store can seem like a task you seriously just don’t want to do. When you’re stressed and hungry, you want to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible. Even when we’re in a hurry though, it’s important to take an extra 10 seconds and read labels to ensure the foods you’re buying are safe. I always try and think of it along the same lines as the precautions I would take when dining out. I would personally never eat anywhere without researching, calling ahead and always ensuring the kitchen is aware and capable to handle cross-contamination. The same rules and precautions should be applied to our kitchens and shopping experiences.

As an allergy community we’re always looking for new and safe brands to add to our pantries. If we take the time, do some research and find safe products, we’ll have a better, and safer cooking experience. Creating culinary treats can challenge us to experiment in the kitchen in the best ways, so don’t let a little label reading stop you from cooking up a delicious meal.

Bon appetit!

– Arianne K.

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Guest Post: The Time I was Diagnosed with Oral Allergy Syndrome

When I was 8 years old, I was at a family get-together and fruit was being served. I was happy to see watermelon on the large platter, as it was my favourite fruit. I grabbed a piece and took a bite. Suddenly I noticed something didn’t seem right. Something didn’t feel right. My lips started to burn and itch, something I had never experienced while eating watermelon, or any food for that matter. After a few minutes, the tingling feeling didn’t subside, but rather increased. I went to the washroom and saw that my lips had a red rim around them and were starting to swell. When I returned to my mom and told her what had happened after eating the watermelon, she (like me) was confused. She proposed that it could be an allergic reaction, but to a fruit? It didn’t seem to make any sense. The following day, she called the allergist and booked an appointment to speak about what had happened.

And like my mom thought, my allergist suspected it was an allergic reaction. To confirm our suspicions, he administered a skin-prick test to check for any reactions to seasonal and environmental allergies. I was told I needed to wait a while for the test to be complete, but a few pricks on my arms were extremely itchy and red. Upon completion, he explained that I was reacting the most to birch and ragweed pollen.

My allergist began reading out a list of fruits and vegetables asking if I had experienced this sort if feeling to any of them in the past. When I told him I didn’t think so, he told me that it is very likely that one day I’ll develop sensitivities to them as well. He explained to me that it was likely that I had Oral Allergy Syndrome (OAS), which is also known as Pollen-Food Syndrome. This type of food allergy is quite different, as certain foods are related to the environment and specific pollens. He helped me understand that it is like mild food intolerances that affect your mouth and oral region. What’s interesting about OAS in my case, is that I can eat the cooked version of some of the raw fruits and vegetables that I’m allergic to. This is because the heating process destroys the proteins, making the immune system no longer recognize the food (Source: http://foodallergycanada.ca/2018/04/research-april-2018/). Though people with OAS usually have a mild reaction, it can however, though very unlikely, become anaphylactic, so I carry an EpiPen® with me every day just in case of an emergency.

Since the day I first experienced an allergic reaction, over 10 years ago, like my allergist anticipated, I have developed many more allergies to fruits and vegetables that are within the birch and ragweed oral allergy families. I have learned through my experiences to strictly avoid any foods that bother me. What’s interesting to me is that after speaking to others about this syndrome, many people are shocked to learn about the possibility of being allergic to something other than the most common food allergens. Even as someone who is living with this syndrome, I truly believe that the conversation around it is lacking in the greater conversation of food allergy awareness. I hope my story begins to shed light on OAS so that others may learn and understand what this type of allergy entails. If you also have OAS, I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

– Simone D.

Hiking and Camping with Tree Nut Allergies

One of the most popular snacks for hiking and camping for those without allergies are tree nuts. They’re light to carry and full of helpful calories, protein and nutrients. It’s never easy being the one who has to say: “Please don’t bring any nuts or peanuts. I am at risk for an anaphylactic reaction.” However, there are plenty of other alternatives that are healthy and lightweight.

As a quick side note, I’ve only been allergic to peanuts and tree nuts for 3 years now, so it has been a long adaptive period for me. From my recent experiences, I consider people who aren’t willing to accommodate my food allergies the types of people I don’t want to have in my life. We all deserve to be surrounded by people who care about your overall health and safety. So when it comes to camping and hiking with a food allergy, my first tip is very important:

1 – Surround yourself with supportive friends
Communicate the severity of your reactions before venturing into the woods to everyone you’re camping with. Explain how a reaction affects you and make sure they fully understand everything, especially the steps they can take in the case of an emergency. Once you’ve explained this, most people are very wonderful about making sure they can accommodate you. If you have food allergies, ask others if they could make sure not to bring any foods that may contain your allergen and be proactive in providing suggestions.

2- Find lightweight food alternatives
Over the years I have been able to find many allergen-safe granola or protein bars. I have personally found that oatmeal has also been a lifesaver for my hiking and camping trips. I love packing oatmeal cookies which are very lightweight and easily accessible as snacks. Dry cereal was another go-to for my hiking and camping buddies.

3 – Visit your local food stores
While living with several allergies, I’ve found that visiting the big chain grocery stores, independent grocers, and natural food stores is a really great way to find all of your possible alternatives. Often different local grocery stores have different options that aren’t found across all stores. Shopping around is a good way to find other healthy alternatives to take with you.

These are a few tips that have helped me out for my allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. Whatever your specific circumstances, just remember that you are important and having an allergy isn’t a reason for you to miss out on activities that you enjoy the most!

– Julie-Anne B.

Eat, Drink, and be Married: The Allergen-Safety Guide to Weddings

It’s wedding season, and each year it seems there are more and more events to attend. From showers, joint stag and does, to respective bachelor/bachelorettes and of course the big day, your summer calendar can fill up pretty quickly. It’s no secret that a big part of these celebrations are the food and drinks. What can you do to stay safe while celebrating your friends’ or family’s happiest day yet? Do you bring a large purse filled with your own food? Do you say no thank you to every food passed under your nose even though you’re so hungry the ice sculpture is starting to look delicious? If you’re anything like me, weddings can be the happiest but also the most worrisome day when it comes to food allergies. I’ve been to a lot of weddings both as a guest and as part of the wedding party and I’ve figured out some sure-fire tips to a successful evening with the least amount of allergen-related issues.

Telling the bride and groom in advance: It seems like every invitation to a wedding these days has an online RSVP. It’s simple, easy to use and certainly saves everyone a lot of time. It’s also a great way to let the happy couple know beforehand about your food allergies. Usually there is a section to send a message which is where I like to let them know about my allergies. If you’re close with the couple, send them a personal message or give them a call and ask about the food being served. They can then easily relay the information on to the caterer and inquire about accommodations they offer. Letting everyone know beforehand can help quell your worries and ensure they are aware of your allergies during the planning process with the caterer.

Talking to the chef/venue: Once you’ve told the couple about your allergies, they might refer you to the venue or caterer of the event to get more information for your specific case. If this is the case, see if you can contact the chef or food and beverage manager to discuss your allergies, cross-contamination and their food preparation process. Find out if it’s a buffet or plated meal. If it’s a buffet, I always ask if it’s possible to have a plate straight from the kitchen instead, as this reduces the risk of cross-contamination at the buffet bar. I also inquire if the serving staff will be aware of my allergen beforehand or if I should discuss it with them the day of the wedding. It may seem like a bother to the bride or groom but offering to talk with the staff about your own allergies could help relieve some stress on both your parts.

Food on trays: During cocktail hour and even dinner, there is no end to food stacked high up on silver trays everywhere you look. As various hands pick, choose and mix the delicious treats you can’t help but wonder, where have their hands been as they sift through various trays. Much like buffets, when everyone can take their own food, there’s always a risk for cross-contamination. I try to stay conscious of this and make sure I let a server know about my food allergy and ask if I can have first dibs from the kitchen or receive a special plate all to myself.

What if it’s all unsafe? Here’s a rare situation, but what if you’ve told the couple in advance, called the venue, talked to a chef and you’re still unsure or not 100% confident about eating at this wedding. What do you do? Send your regrets and a nice gift in your place? I personally wouldn’t go that route. Food isn’t everything, and it certainly shouldn’t stop you from celebrating with your friends and family. There are several things we can do to ensure our appetite is sated. One example is eating before you arrive. Attend the ceremony and leave for the dinner, then return for the reception or if you’re comfortable being around the food, come back during dinner so you can listen to the speeches. Another option is you can pack your own food. Here you can do one of two things: 1. Give it to the serving staff before they serve everyone else and request that they not take it out until it’s at your plate (to reduce the risk of cross-contamination). Or, you can keep your food with you in a car and grab it before the meal. It might seem awkward and you may feel embarrassed, but a quick conversation explaining your food allergies to your tablemates can easily turn into a fun icebreaker table topic!

Wedding season can be a hectic, stressful, budget breaking, amazing, happy crying, dance party, wonderful time. Our food allergies should never stop us from enjoying ourselves and celebrating two people who love each other. Like any other dining experience, if we take the time to talk to the right people and ask the right questions, we’ll feel safer and more confident in our dining choices, whatever they may be. Oh, and bring comfortable shoes, because who doesn’t like to dance at a wedding?

– Arianne K.

Adults and Allergies in the Workplace

As an almost thirty year old, I’ve been dealing with allergies in the workplace for about half of my life. From my first job in fast food, to my current job in an office setting, having a severe allergy and a career can be challenging.

Luckily (or maybe unluckily), when I was a kid, there were posters plastered all over the school with my picture on them, along with a little slogan about the fact that I’m allergic to tree nuts and peanuts. Unfortunately, this route is much less effective, and much more embarrassing in an office of 250 people. Lunchrooms and cubicles can be full of people eating allergens. It’s especially difficult to focus when the scent of your allergens lingers throughout the office. However, as a working adult, I can’t just go home every time someone walks by with a sandwich, or when I see someone eating a protein bar. In a large office setting, it’s next to impossible to keep track of who is eating what, and where they’re eating it. As adults working with other adults, it’s important to have a plan that’s both realistic, and effective at keeping you safe.

So how does one deal with allergens in the workplace? It is a good idea to let the people you work directly with about your allergies as they might be more than willing to help you feel more comfortable. In my situation within a large company, you learn to work around everyone else. If groups of people are sitting in the lunchroom consuming my allergens, I politely remove myself from the lunchroom, and find an allergen free place to eat your lunch where I’ll feel more comfortable. If at a colleague’s cubicle, and there is a nut-filled protein bar at their desk, I make sure to not touch their desk during any of my visits. If you’re in a profession where you’re meeting new people, and shaking hands constantly, washing your hands often is a great idea. You never know what type of allergens someone has touched.

Sanitation is also a key component when you’re trying to avoid an allergic reaction in the workplace. If many people work in your direct workspace, it’s important to sanitize and clean the desk area regularly. Wiping down everything from countertops, to telephones, to door handles, and even pens can help in keeping you safe. Washing your hands is also an important aspect to staying safe in the workplace. I always keep antibacterial hand sanitizer at my desk, and ensure I wash my hands regularly throughout the day.

Staying safe from allergens in the workplace can be a challenging ordeal at first, but once you get the hang of it, it will easily become a part of your regular routine.

– Rachel MacCarl

Honesty is the Best Policy with Food Allergies.

Has this situation ever happened to you? You are out at a restaurant dining with friends and family, and after you’ve told the server about your allergens (and stressed the importance of proper food preparation), someone else at your table tells a little white lie claiming that they have an allergy too. They casually drop the information, with you knowing their allergy isn’t true. To them, it’s an innocent piece of fiction – maybe they don’t like the taste, or the texture bothers them or they could even be on a new diet. But to you, who has a legitimate diagnosed food allergy, it’s a big problem as you are both suddenly cast in the same light. The server may even flag that the meal your friend is ordering contains their supposed allergen.  To which your dinner date may brush it off or say they can have a “cheat day” or that “a little dab won’t hurt.”

Your eyes dart from your dinner companion to the server, silently begging them to understand you’re not like that, that your allergies are important and very real. Has your jaw ever hit the table in disbelief during a situation like this, or caused you to shrink into your chair frozen with anxiety that your allergy’s severity was just seemingly “watered down”? I’ve struggled with how to treat situations like this. I treat my food allergies seriously, I make sure everyone around me knows my allergens, how serious they are and how to identify and respond to a reaction. My allergens are very real and serious. Being put into a situation like the one above isn’t fair.

What do you do? Do you express loudly that your allergen is serious, reaffirming your allergies with the restaurant wait staff? Do you sit quietly and hope the server takes all of the food restrictions seriously regardless of the situation? Do you interrupt your friend and say “stop misleading everyone” and potentially embarrass them in public? It’s tough, it’s awkward for everyone and let’s face it, it can be downright annoying. When this happens to me, I feel like I’ve been put in a position where I need to defend my allergies to everyone around me.

Situations like these can be much more common than you’d think. It’s why it’s time we get honest about our food allergies with ourselves, and with others about the misconceptions surrounding them. It may seem easier to say that you have an allergy when you just don’t enjoy a food. What’s the harm, you think? Personally, I’ve fought for every inch of respect and safety in my life when it comes to my food allergies. Before I found my voice, my mom spent hours on phones calling companies, making food, and generally keeping me safe and bringing normalcy to an otherwise challenging life with food allergies.

It took me a long time to find my confidence. My food allergies are a part of me and a big part of what makes me, me. That’s not to say there isn’t still a struggle between my introvert and extrovert self when it comes to telling people about my food allergies, especially in tense situations like the one above. Dining out with food allergies can be stressful, especially when someone casually stretches the truth about their own dietary issues. It’s important for those with true food allergies to help others understand the importance and seriousness of food allergies. Ask additional questions about food preparation and cross-contamination to prove that you are quite serious about the safety of your food. I still spend a lot of time calling restaurants and companies, trying to find safe food and places to go.  When others fabricate a food allergy to avoid foods they don’t like to eat, it can feel like it diminishes all the time and energy we as a food allergy community have put into staying safe and aware with our food allergies.

Let’s face it, there is always going to be a dish or food that you don’t like (for me it’s cauliflower). We can avoid that food and tell others we don’t like the taste or texture, but we should never deceive others or misrepresent these dislikes as an allergen. Although it may seem like a harmless and victimless statement, it can hurt those around you who do have a food allergy.

For those of us with a food allergy, instead of getting angry or upset when people evade foods with false allergy statements, we can instead teach them about the seriousness of a food allergy and the affect that a little lie could have on your requests, so we can all feel safe and satisfied when dining out.

  • Arianne K.

Awareness for Commonly Misused Allergy Phrases

Summer is right around the corner, and everyone who loves camping, hiking, or enjoying a refreshing beverage on a patio with friends should be excited. Since I love camping, let’s set the scene on a Friday afternoon in the grocery store gathering some food before some friends and I head up to a favourite campsite for a weekend of s’mores, fishing, swimming, and canoeing. I have a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, and as I walk by the pastry section in the grocery store, my friend says “Oh, we shouldn’t get those donuts, that’ll kill you. Let’s get chips for snack instead”. This is a common scenario that I have encountered on a regular basis so let’s talk about it.

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I also love patio season, so here’s another scenario. Let’s say some friends and I are enjoying the sun on a patio, looking at the drink menu. I also have an allergy to raw pineapple, which has been difficult for me because I grew into it. I had been able to enjoy this, my favourite fruit, up until a few months ago when I discovered through a food allergy test, that I had developed a life-threatening allergy. As we’re looking at the drink menu, one of my friends says aloud, “Oh, look at the cocktail selection. You can’t have that one, or that one, or that one, or even that one. Man, you can’t have anything!”

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These two situations can happen all too often to an adult with allergies, and to an outsider, these phrases may appear harmless. But let’s say you recently experienced an anaphylactic allergic reaction where you had to use your epinephrine auto-injector, called 9-1-1, struggled to breath, and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. If someone refers to one of your allergens by saying “that will kill you”, they may think they are making a harmless statement. If you’re like me, however, and have suffered a severe anaphylactic reaction where you may have thought your situation was life-threatening, hearing something say “that’ll kill you” may bring about a strong emotional response. Like me, you may remember the fear you had when you weren’t able to breathe, or the relief you felt when the fire fighters or paramedics rushed into your house to save you, or the comfort you felt when you came home from the hospital. It is important for those with – and especially without – a life-threatening allergy to be cognizant of the wording they use when describing someone’s allergen.

The same goes for the phrase, “oh, you can’t have that”. This may seem even more benign, but to an individual with an allergy who is with a group of friends enjoying a food that they cannot enjoy, they may feel ostracized or left out. As someone who developed allergies as an adult who had previously enjoyed foods that I cannot have anymore, I often feel sad to hear others comment on my shortcomings in this way. Although I do appreciate someone trying to look out for me, there’s another way to go about it.  A way that doesn’t single me out or make me feel uncomfortable.

If you are an adult with allergies, you may have experienced these scenarios before. You may not have noticed that these phrases were said, or you might have experienced a strong emotional response, bringing you back to a severe reaction. It’s important to be able to balance your appreciation for their concern and your annoyance at their possible ignorance to the gravity of what they’re saying. A possible response is, “thanks for bringing it up, but please don’t use that wording.” Be honest with your friends and let them know how you really feel. They likely didn’t even know their words had such an impact. Slowly, let’s all change the landscape of misused allergy phrases.

– Fraser K.

By Food Allergy Canada