All posts by Adults with Allergies Blog Editor

Eat, Drink and Be Scary: Allergen-Friendly Halloweens

As hinges creek from an unknown breeze, a door closes when no one was around, and the sound of footsteps follow you up the stairs. When spooky things are in the air and the sky goes dark…you know that Halloween is here! Happy haunts lurk behind every corner and pumpkins decorate porches as ghost’s float in nearby trees. As you can probably tell, I love this time of year for so many reasons, but Halloween is by far the biggest reason. What’s not to love about this wickedly ghoulish time of year? Well, for some of us there is a different chill in the air that has nothing to do with ghosts and goblins, and everything to do with treat bags and what tricks might be in them. Living with a food allergy during this time of year can be hard to navigate, so it’s important to be aware and look out for our allergens. From parties with friends, to having “trick or treaters” at your door, allergens can be anywhere and or hidden in so many unsuspecting things.

For those of us who are younger and out trick or treating, there are ways to stay safe and avoid your allergen(s). One example is waiting to eat until you get home as this will give you more time to read all food ingredient labels. If you’re handing out goodies, make sure you look for the speciality bags or badges that some children may have to indicate that they have allergies. If you plan to accommodate by handing out allergen-friendly goodies, consider putting a teal pumpkin out to show your support of food allergies, or a teal light in support of Food Allergy Canada’s new “Shine a Light” campaign. This also acts as an indicator to parents and kids that you have safe or non-food related treats. A small gesture goes a long way for kids who are out trick or treating and being conscious of allergens can make their night!

Dressing up is one of the best parts of Halloween. Each year my partner and I bet ourselves that we can out do our costumes from the previous year. Some years involve little to prepare while others take a good hour to create and paint. One important thing I’ve learned while living with food allergies at this time of year is to read everything, and I don’t just mean snacks. Make-up, fake blood, and other things that add a touch of flare to a costume may contain your allergens. Whether you’re applying zombie make-up or making sure your vampire comes equipped with blood fangs, make sure your allergens aren’t present in the product before application. I have found that anything from latex, or nut oils, to sulphites can be found in various makeups. Find something allergen-friendly and do a mark/spot test at least 24 hours before you plan to dress up in order to make your ghoulish appearance one to remember.

As you get older, Halloween becomes less about trick or treating and more about parties, scary movie marathons and other activities with our friends. But, much like going out and getting candy, our allergens can still be found at all of these events. One thing to keep in mind whether you’re binging your favourite horror movie series or at a party with friends is that it’s important to follow the same rules you normally follow in your everyday life. Read ingredient labels even if you’ve had that type of candy before. Some candy or chocolate bars could contain slightly different ingredients or have different labelling for Halloween since these smaller products may be processed in different facilities. If there are homemade goods, check with the chef/baker before eating. Ask about allergens, the risk of cross-contamination, etc., and only eat the foods that you’re 100% comfortable eating. A good alternative is to get your cauldron brewing and make your own treats to share with everyone so that you’re positive it’s allergen-friendly. You could also consider buying candy chocolates you’ve researched yourself and feel confident are  allergen-friendly.

As an adult at a Halloween party, you’re sure to run into some boos, wait no I mean booze. Pumpkin flavoured beers and other holiday treats are staples at most adult Halloween parties. Much like any other food, we need to make sure what we’re eating and drinking is allergen-friendly. If it’s a punch bowl, ask what fruits, flavours, and alcohols are involved. If it’s a shared/serve yourself bowl, make sure there is no risk of cross-contamination or see if you can get first dibs or a special cup/bowl just to be sure it’s allergen-friendly with no risk of cross-contamination. Allergen labelling on specialty beers and wines can be tricky, but I always try to call or email the company if I’m unsure of all the ingredients. A good trick for any party is to bring your own drinks, something you know is allergen-friendly and never leave your glass or drink unattended.

As we grow older it’s easy to lose the spirit of Halloween, dismissing it as a childish tradition. I think we need to get back to our childhood roots, tell each other ghost stories, eat candy together and dress up as our favorite characters and people. This year put out a teal pumpkin or light, have some allergen-friendly or non-food treats ready, grab a scary movie or have a party to get into the spooky spirit. Happy Halloween!

– Arianne K.

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Cycling Preparations with Food Allergies

Why I’m biking from Toronto to Ottawa:

Last fall, I realized I had spent yet another summer with a pretty new bike and not a lot of biking. I decided that I needed motivation to get on my bike, and the joy of commuting in the rain just wasn’t enough.

I wanted to finally plan a big bike trip. I spoke with my allergist about it who recommended that I plan a route that considers a 30-minute ambulance response time. I’m allergic to a variety of fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, black pepper, and sulphites, so that’s a pretty reasonable request. After meeting with my allergist, I then talked to a paramedic friend of mine, to see where I could bike while staying in range of hospitals and ambulances. “Why not just come on the Paramedic Ride?” he joked. But then we both realized that it was actually a pretty good idea! I’m happy to raise awareness and funds for a Paramedic Memorial, and I get a very safe bike trip in the deal! Plus, I figured that meeting more paramedic friends is not a bad idea!

How I got ready:

This trip was mostly complicated by how to transport my bicycle, and how to manage my food allergies. I started getting ready last fall, by borrowing a winter trainer. I didn’t get it set up until Christmas, but then I got into a rhythm of biking in the garage while watching Netflix. The sawdust in my garage was mildly itchy at times and going outside in the winter after training hard involved quite a brief cold spurt (if I had more space I’d definitely consider bringing the trainer indoors).

I quickly discovered that learning to bike long distances with allergies also involves learning to make sport snacks and foods. I read A LOT in an attempt to figure out how to make an electrolyte drink, and when I realized I was tired from lacking them, I started adding a little more salt and a lot more protein to my biking snacks. I would highly recommend The Feed Zone Portables cookbook for a variety of “from-scratch” sport food ideas.

In the end, I settled for mostly eating bananas, making cookies, and occasionally making granola bars. I gave up on the granola bars half way through the summer when my jaw started hurting because they were too chewy (oops) but I will definitely keep trying recipes. On the electrolyte front, there are a bunch of great DIY recipes, but most involve a few ingredients I am not yet allowed to consume. So I talked to my mom, a nurse in the remote town of Angola, and she explained that for a better-than-nothing solution she usually puts a spoon of sugar, two pinches of salt, and a bit of flavouring into a litre of water. I’ve translated that into 1 scant teaspoon of salt, 1 heaping teaspoon of sugar, and a good splash of homemade ginger syrup into 1.5 litres of water. It’s not perfect or ideal, but I reserve its use for days when it’s really hot or when I’m doing a long bike workout (30-km or more).

With all the food and snacks prepared, I have managed 2500-km of biking so far in 2018, with my longest ride being a 115-km trip around the small town of Carp, Ontario. I might have had a little too much fun in my last week of training, biking around the city on specific streets to “write” out the fundraising website!

 

What I brought with me:

Most importantly, I packed a couple epinephrine auto-injectors. I’d usually bring more for a big trip, but the Canada-wide Epi-Pen® shortage makes my pharmacy reluctant to pass out more than absolutely needed. That being said, I’m not concerned since we’re getting an ambulance escort for the event.

Because I didn’t want to give the ride organizers the extra hassle of arranging safe food for me, I decided I’d pack my own food. Bananas and oranges are pretty much guaranteed to be supplied at biking events, and if not, I can definitely stock up on them in any little grocery store I encounter along the way. I have a few simple snack foods like Nori (seaweed), rice crackers, chocolate chips, and homemade cookies.

That left me with the meal food left to plan, as well as figuring out how to cook it. I didn’t want to just eat sandwiches, and since this ride has the luxury of ambulance support vehicles, I planned a few frozen meals and a number of homemade dehydrated ones as well. To cook these, I brought a one-burner electric stove, a frying pan for at the hotel, and a Hot Logic Mini (basically a plug-in lunchbox which heats meals and keeps them warm; it’s going to be my secret to instant hot meals whenever I stop). The frying pan is for boiling water for breakfast and will act as a general backup for cooking. I know hotels have microwaves sometimes, but they can be a pain to clean up, and they heat things less evenly. Plus, I hear we’re often stopping for lunch in parks for this event.

Lastly, I also made sure to think through my drink situation. At home I drink tap water, because some water filters contain trace amounts of sulphites (including some bottled waters), which give me predictable hives. I know the ride provides bottled water, so I’m just going to fill up each day with the water that I feel most safe drinking.

So now I have allergen-safe food and water, my bicycle, the hotel is booked, and I’ve been biking A LOT all summer. I feel ready, I’ve landed in Toronto… here I go!

– Janice H.

One Restaurant, Two Different Dining Experiences

I travel once a month for work to a small town where I stay for 3 nights. The town has limited restaurant options but enough to give me a variety of foods from which to choose. For this blog post, I want to highlight my experiences at a Tex Mex chain restaurant in particular. I’ve visited countless times and my overall experience has been great! That being said, I want to share two stories of how you can sometimes have completely different experiences at the same restaurant.

Situation #1: The First-Timer

The first time I travelled for work, I chose to eat here because I looked at the menu online and trusted the overall “vibe” I was getting in terms of allergen (peanut/tree nut) safety. What I mean by this is that I saw no peanuts on the menu and the only tree nuts were located in the salad section of the menu, which seems to be very normal these days. They also have a little blurb on the menu outlining their caution with food allergies and their ability to accommodate those living with food allergies. When I got to the restaurant, I let my server know about the severity of my food allergy. She assured me that the restaurant staff are very careful with food preparation in the back and that she would let everyone who handles the food know about my allergy. A few minutes later, the manager approached my table to inform me of their protocols. A specific chef was assigned to the preparation of my meal, sterilized utensils and pots/pans were to be used and they would do everything to ensure there was no risk of cross-contamination in the back. This sounded awesome! I was blown away by the awareness and the careful preparation that their restaurant protocol followed. I was served my meal and the wait staff followed up with me twice to ensure everything was going well, and I have to say, it definitely went well. I walked away feeling quite impressed with my new experience!

Situation #2: The Weird Vibe

The next month when I went back to this restaurant, I asked for the same menu item (steak fajitas-they are SO good!) and the restaurant staff followed the same protocol, with the manager approaching me before meal preparation. Where it got weird was when the manager followed up with my meal after I had taken a few bites. After asking how I was enjoying my meal, she said, “well, we haven’t killed you yet, so that’s a good sign!”

I’m a very easygoing person but for some reason this line irked me. It just didn’t sound right! It could be that the manager was feeling awkward about approaching me as the only person sitting at a table (I’ve noticed wait staff can be very awkward when I go to a restaurant alone, but what else can I do? I’m working!) It could also be that the manager just thought she needed to say something and didn’t filter herself before speaking. Whatever the case, I don’t think a line that includes “not killing” someone should ever be used, especially at a venue that serves food to someone with a life-threatening food allergy.

I’m not overreacting. I’m not even truly upset. I just wanted to share these stories to demonstrate how experiences can sometimes be amazing or weird at the same place for the same person. Weird vibes happen, but what I learned from these two visits is that as a person with food allergies, I should try to not let my guard down or become complacent just because I’ve had a good experience somewhere in the past. Diligence is my number one protector and as long as I am thorough in minimizing my risk, I can feel safe eating out and experiencing the wide world of eating while on the road!

– Dylan B.

Traveling to PEI with Food Allergies

This summer I had the opportunity to travel to the beautiful province of Prince Edward Island (P.E.I) for the first time on a semi-family vacation. As an adult going out east was a bit difficult since I was recently diagnosed with a fresh water fish allergy that has crept over into almost all fish. After a few hives and some close calls, I decided I’d stay away from all fish until I had more tests completed and information received. So what better place to visit this summer then “The Land of Anne” and fresh seafood? Prepping for the trip, I can break down my experiences into three significant food allergy related areas: Road trips, great food and a real confidence boost for me regarding my food allergies.

Part One: On the Road Again

My family and I all piled into an already packed car to drive the 11-ish hours through four provinces, three bags of chips, two bridges and only one cell phone charger. I’m lucky the people in the car knew about my allergies before the trip but that didn’t stop us from encountering a few speedbumps along the way. As a group, we had an on-going group chat where we talked and planned activities. Here I was able to communicate all of my allergies and more importantly, I was able to talk about the risk of cross-contamination, and about how I will not eat anything if I can’t read the ingredients first or know where/how it was made. This was cause for a bit of back and forth regarding homemade baked goods and assurance that it would be safe. For me, I am just not comfortable eating something that I am not familiar with, especially on the road in a new place. Mandatory road snacks aside, the biggest issue on the road came late at night. Our first and only stop before reaching our destination was in the province of New Brunswick late at night. Arriving at the hotel we all had cabin fever from spending nine plus hours in the car. I foolishly assumed we’d be able to find somewhere allergen-friendly to grab food before turning in for the night. Well boy was I wrong! Everything was closed and what was open was a pizza restaurant that couldn’t distinguish between sesame seeds and what they called “flavour seeds.” So I choose to play it safe and not to eat there. At 1:00 am, my only option was a vending machine and breakfast bars that I had packed for the next morning. I realized I packed like an unprepared fool. I had no plan B and I paid for it. The next day when places were open, I was able to find food before the last leg of our trip, but it taught me an important lesson of not taking things like pizza places for granted. I made a mental note to pack sandwiches and other things to eat for our way home.

Part Two: Great Food

It can be tough when travelling to a place where your allergen is extremely prominent, especially if it’s a new allergen. I was diagnosed with an allergy to fresh water fish only a few years ago, and I am still not as comfortable with it as I am with my other allergens. Since my nervousness tends to get the better of me, I did some serious emailing and calling to find some allergen-friendly places to eat in P.E.I before we left home. Luckily, we were planning to stay in a cottage where we had the ability to cook the majority of our meals. But, I was still extremely excited to try some local brew houses and great cuisine, so I was both extremely happy to find incredible safe places to eat and disappointed that some places were not safe. The biggest thing I learned was trusting my gut and calling ahead. I am so glad I took the time to call restaurants ahead of time and even received some suggestions from my sister-in-law on where to go. I didn’t let it get me down when places weren’t allergen-friendly, and I certainly didn’t let it stop me from having a drink there or discouraging others from eating or visiting places where my allergens were present. All in all, I had amazing food both made by me and my travel companions, and in lovely restaurants.

Part Three: Confidence Boost

The most important thing I can say about my trip or any trip for that matter, is to stay positive about your food allergies and not let your limitations get you down. If you’re uncomfortable eating somewhere, let people know or refrain from eating and wait until you get back to an allergen-friendly spot. Always carry extra snacks or something when you’re on-the-go and most importantly, speak up about your allergies and let others know if you feel uncomfortable. Even if it may feel awkward to bring up or impede on your travel companions’ food and traditions, if you feel unsafe, speak up and let others know. The weight you feel lifted off your shoulders when you share your food allergy concerns with others is amazing because they’ll likely want to help you and keep you safe. It can be a real boost in confidence when you speak openly and honestly about your allergies, and I’m always grateful when the people around me care and want to listen as well.

I love to travel, whether its seeing our beautiful country or abroad, it’s amazing to get out of my comfort zone and gain a new perspective. Just because I have food allergies, doesn’t mean that I can’t try new foods, see new places, and enjoy myself. Having a plan, packing safe food, and maintaining a good attitude is a sure-fire way to have the best allergy-friendly vacation. Don’t hold yourself back; trust your gut and go out there and explore the world!

– Arianne K.

Addressing the “Allergy” in the Room: Communicating Your Allergy to Others

Going out for dinner, whether on a date, with colleagues from work, or with your closest friends, you are likely to experience some common elements: loud music, clinking plates/utensils, crowded tables, and multiple wait staff running around, each server striving to satisfy the multiple tables under their supervision.

Sometimes in this environment, it is easy to feel anxious or feel like it is a burden to mention your food allergy to the wait staff (or to the company you are with) when you go to order your meal, because it is one more thing they need to worry about. Growing up with a severe peanut/tree nut allergy, I’ve struggled with how to handle situations like this. As a child, speaking to any “stranger” is scary enough, let alone to inform them of a possible life-threatening reaction to occur under their supervision. It took me a long time to find my confidence and even still, it is not always easy. However, the reality is, we should all feel safe going out to eat and be able to enjoy an anxiety-free meal with the company we are with.

OK, so let’s say you are now at a table with friends and the waiter is making their way around the table taking orders, and you are next up. Instead of being anxious and overthinking everything in your head, start thinking about what questions you can ask the waiter to ensure you feel comfortable eating there. For example, you can ask questions about food preparation and the risk of cross-contamination to prove that you are quite serious about the safety of your food. Or you can ask what their process is for handling tables with allergies. It is important to communicate that this is a life-threatening allergy; this is not an intolerance or a preference, this is an allergy. Another tactic is to get in front of the issue by pulling the server aside before ordering and asking them what dishes are safe or easy to prepare to accommodate someone with a severe food allergy. You will find that most of the time the servers are educated to handle this scenario and more than happy to offer recommendations as well as assist in finding you a meal that you will safely enjoy. If there is ever an instance that the response you receive is not entirely confident, I would recommend speaking with the chef themselves or choose somewhere else to eat since nothing is worth the risk of having an allergic reaction.

This above scenario not only applies for the wait staff, but also for the people with whom you are enjoying the meal. Some people are not accustomed to dealing with food allergies, or never grew up in an environment with someone that had a severe allergy. Have you ever been out for lunch with a friend and they decide to order a dish with the allergen you are severely allergic to? How do you address this without hindering their dining experience and avoid the rest of the lunch being uncomfortable? I have been in this situation and to be honest, the first time I definitely could have handled it better. I was extremely uncomfortable and anxious knowing that the allergen I have been conditioned to avoid for the majority of my life is in the dish right beside mine. However, once you confront the issue the first time, the rest is a breeze. One possible solution is to simply ask your friend to slide to another seat at the table to minimize the cross-contamination risk. Allergies are so common now and being able to speak about them with your friends, family or the waiter should never feel uncomfortable.

So next time you go out for a bite to eat, check the menu beforehand, read the reviews, and make sure your company and the waiter are informed of any food allergies. This is your safety, your life, your allergy and most importantly, it is YOUR responsibility to communicate.

– Phil Greenway

 

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.

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.