Category Archives: Allergies and Laws

In a Perfect Food Allergy World…

In a perfect world people that grow, harvest, package, process, and cook food would be completely open and honest about their ingredients. They would know which products were produced where, and with a touch of a button, people with food allergies would easily be able to look up which products were potentially cross-contaminated.

For those inexperienced to the world of food allergies, you might think we’ve already arrived in that perfect world. Here in Canada, labelling laws require that companies clearly indicate the presence of priority allergens in their ingredient list. In 2012, new laws came into effect to try and make those lists easier to read- for example, if a milk derivative such as casein was used in a product, the manufacturer had to start listing “milk” in their lists.

However, we still have a long way to go. For those at-risk for anaphylaxis, one of the most concerning loopholes is the lack of mandatory cross-contamination declarations. Most companies have some sort of protocols in place for thoroughly washing equipment between products, but it’s often automated and isn’t guaranteed. Some ingredients can easily spread through air, for example powders like wheat flours. Cooking oils can create fine mist, and sulphites can be added as a gas to help prevent spices from clumping. Once theses airborne particles settle, they could easily cross-contaminate other products made simultaneously in the same factory. This can happen in people’s homes, too, cross-contaminating a kitchen over time in the same way that dust leaves a fine powder on everything. Surprisingly, however, the requirement to declare possible sources of cross-contamination for priority allergens is completely optional for companies. This is one of the nightmares for those with severe allergies, since it means you have to call each company individually and find out if they have chosen to mention that they use your allergen in the same factory or not.

It gets harder if your allergen is not a “priority allergen.” Let’s not forget that people can be allergic to any food! In Canada, the priority allergens are determined by the top 10 most common food allergens. That said, just because other food allergies are rare doesn’t mean they can’t cause severe reactions. Let me be the example here: my most serious allergic reactions have been caused by cherries and black pepper! There are situations when companies aren’t required to list those as an ingredient, let alone mention the risk of cross-contamination. As a result, my absolute favourite products and companies are those that take the time to list every single ingredient on the label, instead of hiding ingredients in vague statements such as “flavours” or “spices.” Some statements are misleading, too- “artificial flavours” is listed when there is any combination of flavours where most of the flavours are synthetically derived. They can still mix in the natural extracts, however, which was a frequent source of hives for me before I realized what was happening. Now, as a rule I simply don’t buy or use anything pre-packaged unless I’ve contacted the company. Whether that’s food, toothpaste, or even shampoo- if there’s a chance I might swallow it by accident, I need to know that none of my many allergens are present!

So then how do we deal with making labels more helpful for consumers with food allergies, while not overwhelming the packaging with the text of the ingredients? Some products that handle labelling well use the following techniques:

  • Less text because of fewer ingredients. You also have the added advantage of higher quality products if there are fewer additives. Plus there’s the entertainment factor- I turn into a crazed fan girl screaming with delight when I find products with only one ingredient listed.
  • Folded lists of ingredients hidden behind stickers. These are very common in the hygiene industry, where there are simply too many ingredients to list them all in a readable sized font. At least they’re all attached to the product, though!
  • Complete ingredient lists in plain language. It’s like a breath of fresh air when companies actually list every ingredient. I recognize that companies may want to be able to keep certain things proprietary, but honestly- the competition could theoretically decode most of the ingredients with lab testing… and the average consumer is more interested in the convenience of not having to make it themselves!
  • Special Quick Response (QR) Codes with links to online ingredient information. This is usually in addition to the ingredient lists, but adds extra information vital to the allergic consumer like a detailed chart about cross-contamination risks.
  • Contact information on the package, and staff who know product ingredients. I am 100% more likely to buy a product on the spot if I can reach someone knowledgeable while I’m at the store. I am also highly appreciative of companies who respond to my emailed queries with thorough answers.

At the end of the day, we don’t live in a perfect world. There are no perfect companies nor process that can make guarantees for all allergens. Someday, ingredient labelling may become obsolete as new technologies are being developed for consumer food allergen detection tests. But until the day when we can all afford our newly invented hand-held tricorders, I’ll be relying on companies with honesty, integrity, and a deep sense of pride in sharing with the world the quality of what they make. Here’s to hoping those companies flourish and multiply!

– Janice H.

Advertisements

“What’s in your food?” – Experiences with Food Labelling Abroad

When I was 19, I packed up myself, my peanut and soy allergies, and five EpiPen® auto-injectors, and moved to Finland. This was a goal I had set for myself when I was 12 and I barely slept from the day I received my university acceptance in January until I left in July. After 21 hours of travel, I ventured to the grocery store to find something – anything – to eat. My excitement was quickly squashed when I noticed the vague “may contain nuts” label present on so many foods. Did they mean peanuts? How was I supposed to eat with this vague labelling? Cookies, chocolates, breads, and even some pasta…and for some reason, things were labelled with “nuts and almonds.” Those are the same thing! Almonds are nuts! Not only was I dealing with reading in two new languages (Finnish and Swedish), but I was also dealing with new labelling laws in two new languages…and one wrong choice could have had drastic consequences. While I’m sure Finnish hospitals are wonderful, I didn’t particularly want to see the inside of one of them.
I lost 10 lbs in the first month, and anyone who knows me will tell you I didn’t have 10 lbs to lose. I quickly realized I needed to figure out these laws or let my allergies win and pack my bags to go back to Canada. I started contacting companies asking them to define what
nuts are included in their “may contain nuts” statement so I could better assess the risk for my allergies. Every company responded to me right away, and knew exactly what nuts were present in the facilities where their food was produced. Even a simple Facebook© message resulted in a straight-to-the-point answer where I clearly understood if the product was safe or not. With these quick responses, I soon started to question if I was better off in Finland than Canada.

From there, I explored restaurants. My Finnish friend insisted this bakery she loved would be allergen-safe. Bakeries are an automatic ‘no’ for me while I’m at home and I could feel my anxiety rising as I prepared myself to order a coffee with no cinnamon bun, as usual (perspective: that’s basically like ordering a poutine with no cheese in Canada). I nearly cried when, without missing a beat, the woman working behind the counter knew that the cocoa used in that cake *points to chocolate cake in the corner* had a “may contain nuts” warning on it, but that every other ingredient was safe and every piece of equipment was sanitized between making products. Yes, those traditional Christmas joulutorttu – puff pastries with prune jam, things I had eyed in the stores and accepted I would never get to try – were deemed safe.

The quality of service was not isolated to this small bakery. Every time I ate out I felt 100% safe and understood. All restaurants knew exactly what was in their food and what their food had come into contact with, whether it was a burger joint on the highway or a fancy restaurant in downtown Helsinki. The school cafeterias labelled allergens in all meals on large screens. Cafeteria food was labelled “contains a small amount of X” (aka, likely safe for intolerances) or “contains no X” (aka, likely safe for serious allergies). The cafeteria workers were incredibly precise with ensuring utensils only touched the food they were supposed to touch and that nothing dripped from one area to another. I skipped the days when peanut dishes were offered, but regularly ate the other cafeteria foods without any issues – and, most importantly, I felt safe whenever I chose to eat.

Originally, I wanted to write about the difficulties of food labelling abroad. Of course, I ran into issues in Estonia when I didn’t bother to learn any Estonian before my travels. I ran into problems in the arctic when a chef told me to just read the menu to see what was in the food (he thought I meant an intolerance). I also assumed that food in Denmark would be labelled in Swedish because food in Sweden was labeled in Danish. I quickly found myself buying a soda pop instead of a real meal to get me through my flight without a reaction because I couldn’t read any of the food ingredients. But through writing this blog post, I have come to realize that, for the most part, food allergies were incredibly well handled in Finland. Of course, you need to know the native words for your allergen. For example, I knew maapähkinä is peanut and soijaproteiini is soy protein before I even applied to move to Finland, and I knew how to pronounce them the best I could. Had I not learned those words, I would have had a significantly different experience. But other than the language barrier, no significant issues occurred. Travelling with allergies is possible, and sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find!

– Danielle B.

May Contain the Following: Stress

This product may have come into contact with the following: How many times have you been in a grocery store aisle reading an ingredient list of a new product with excitement only to find these words at the very bottom like a disappointing end to a great story. It can hit you like a ton of bricks, or knock the wind right out of you. For lack of a better term, it’s a real bummer.

As you put the item back, it’s easy to get discouraged, angry, or upset. You may curse the product or the company but, in my opinion, I think we should feel the exact opposite. Every time I see this or similar wording I’m happy I live in a time and a place where information is readily available for allergen safety. After all, precautionary labelling is completely voluntary in Canada.

I have vivid memories from when I was young of my mom calling company after company attempting to get information about production lines, products in the vicinity, and other foods that the company made. She spent hours with a house phone (on a cord I might add) pressed against her ear with boxes of food, paper, and permanent markers sprawled out in front of her. Each time she got a complete answer she’d mark a or X on the box and then feverishly write down any other information they would give her. She did this for hours on end just to find out if certain products were safe for me to eat, or because I mentioned I wanted try, for instance, Fruit Roll-Up© (which I couldn’t) or PopTarts© (which I could). She scoured this new frontier called the Internet for any information she could find, from website FAQ’s to small forums made up of other parents. She, just like many others, was desperate for some clarity or visibility to make sure our cupboards and grocery store aisle didn’t become a scary place. She spent hours on hold, getting half-truths, rude comments, or no answers at all just to ensure my childhood was a little bit better. She was a brave explorer in in a time where precautionary labelling was in its infancy – just trying to make sense of it all.

30's woman on a serious phone call.Today, that amount of effort seems daunting and overwhelming. I can only image the anxiety and fear she had each time a new food came into our house. Now, with food allergies being more prevalent, and manufacturers taking more precautions with their products and labelling, more information is at my finger tips from a variety of sources. If I have questions, I can contact a company by email, hotline, or check out reviews from thousands of others in various online media sources like websites, social media, articles, etc. If all that doesn’t satisfy my craving for knowledge I can reach out and read the many online publications dedicated to food allergy safety (and I can do that through social media as well). But my first step will always be reading an ingredient list.

I encourage you to read Health Canada’s interview with Food Allergy Canada where they detail the most recent food allergy labelling guidelines:  http://foodallergycanada.ca/2016/10/5-questions-for-health-canada

The “may contain” label was introduced to warn people about potential allergens not listed in the ingredient list. This was done in case another food product during the production process could have come into contact, fallen into, been on the same production line, or any other incident that could have contaminated your product with an allergen. Although more and more companies are disclosing this information and becoming transparent on the true risks of their products, it is still important to do your research if you are unsure about a new food.

– Arianne K

For more information about food labelling, check out Food Allergy Canada’s website.

Going to The Dentist with Allergies

Dentist

Note: The following advice is simply that: advice. It is not to be substituted for professional advice from your dentist. It is, rather, intended to serve as a general reminder to help you work with your dentist and/or other dental professionals to aid in safe experiences at the dentist.

 

Going to the dentist is an experience most people try to avoid. I know this because I’m a dental student and my patients are never shy to remind me of this. Usually, a dentist will ask you to fill out a health questionnaire before seeing you. This is where you should write down any allergies you have. A few common ones that are important for your dentist to know include (but are not limited to):

  • Antibiotics (e.g. penicillin, sulfonamides). A dentist might prescribe you antibiotics if you have a tooth ache and need a root canal, or if you just had a tooth extracted. If you see them reaching for the prescription pad, don’t be shy to remind them of your allergy.
  • Latex or nitrile. Depending on the dental office, some dentists prefer to use latex gloves, while others prefer nitrile. Latex can also be found in the rubber dam they use while drilling a cavity, at the tip of the drill used for prophylaxis (cleaning or polishing your teeth), at one end of the vial of anesthetic, as well as other places. If the dentist doesn’t ask you if you’re allergic before he/she sits down, feel free to mention it before they put on their gloves.
  • In local anesthesia with a vasopressor (like epinephrine), sulfites are used as a preserving agent. A sulfite allergy is not the same as an allergy to sulfa, which is an antibiotic. It’s also possible (but rare) to be allergic to a class of anesthetics called “esters” (http://www.dentistrytoday.com/pain-management/anesthesia/265). If you think you’re allergic to local anesthesia because of a past bad reaction, get tested by an allergist to make sure it’s a true allergy.
  • Today, most metals used in crowns and prostheses are precious metals and are well tolerated by the body. If you’re sensitive to non-precious metals like copper or nickel, make sure your dentist knows. In terms of fillings, a true allergy to amalgam is quite rare, but it’s still possible to have a localized reaction on the skin that’s in direct contact with the amalgam (silver/metal filling). Discuss your concerns with your dentist.

If you start experiencing the signs of an allergic reaction, bring it to the attention of the dentist immediately. All dentists are trained in emergency first aid and by law are required to stock epinephrine in their emergency kit. As long as you’re clear about your allergies (and brush and floss regularly), going to the dentist should be a relatively “painless” experience.

Talia A.

Food Allergies and the Transition to University Life

University Students laptop
If you have a food allergy, the transition to university can be a pretty daunting experience. In high school, you were likely surrounded by people who had known you well for many years and teachers who knew your name. In university, the chances of this happening again are quite slim. Most classes contain 400+ students and, unless you manage to schedule time to meet with your professors multiple times, they likely won’t know your name let alone your food allergy. So what’s the good news? The good news is that you prepared for this ahead of time and are ready for the new challenge of independence! In case you’re still in the preparation phase, I’ve put together a few things to think about and look for within your new environment.

Let’s start with the dorm life. Many first year dorms or residences contain a lot of shared bedrooms where the room is shared with a roommate. Every school is different so be sure to scope out possible residence options when you apply to that school. Also, be sure to educate your roommate (if you have one) and all new friends about your food allergies and the proper administration of your auto-injector. You are definitely going to eat in your room, which means your roommate will also eat there. With this in mind, your safety is paramount. If your roommate doesn’t understand the severity of your food allergy, speak with the residence life staff and ask them to help you explain it. Also, don’t be afraid to make special room requests when applying or even after being accepted to a university. You can ask to be placed in an allergy-friendly room or ask for a solo room to ensure your safety.

Next up, cafeteria food. If you are living in a residence with no shared kitchen, you will likely be eating a lot of campus food. Treat this experience as you would going to a local restaurant. Explain the severity of your food allergy to the food staff and ask if they serve any food that may contain your allergen(s). Then ask to speak with a manager or supervisor to ensure you will be looked after for that day and every day in the next year. Ask if the staff know what cross-contamination means and whether or not there is any risk of this with their food. Lastly, stick with your gut feeling. If you feel uneasy about eating at a particular cafeteria or restaurant, move on! There are plenty of other options on campus to fill your stomach.

Another thing to look into for your university is anaphylaxis policies. These can be quite difficult to navigate and find. Even if your school does have policies for food allergies, they are likely to appear on a continuum from either very diverse to cover every food allergy to very specific where less-severe allergies may be overlooked. These are worth taking the time to look into as it may inform a lot of your food choices on campus. If you find that food allergy policies do not exist at your university, you might want to join a university council or speak with a campus political leader to try to put a new policy in place. These people are working to make the student experience more positive; so don’t be afraid to ask! They will almost always do everything they can to help.

Last but not least, parties. By now, you’ve likely been exposed to parties and have learned a few things about managing your food allergy in a party atmosphere. However, at university and college, alcoholic drinks tend to make an appearance. This may be a new obstacle for you and, if it is, remember to keep a level head. If you notice that a drinking game has people sharing cups, it is a good idea to avoid playing that game since you don’t know what these people ate earlier in the day. It could have been your food allergen! Also, stick to drinks you know to be safe for you. There are many different types of alcoholic beverages out there and some contain almond extract, hazelnut, dairy, etcetera. So stay aware and stay safe.

This may seem like a lot to look out for when also trying to manage the new challenges of course work; but remember that you are independent and are ready to conquer university!

Dylan B.

Beauty Products with Allergens

Portrait of beautiful woman with blue eyes. Isolated on white background

Summer is a great time to try out new kinds of makeup and fun color combinations. But a lot of people aren’t aware of all the different ingredients that go into makeup. This is especially important for people with allergies. An allergy to a makeup product might manifest as redness, itchiness, hives or blisters; so it’s important to know what’s in your makeup.

One of the most surprising ingredients in makeup I’ve come across is fish. It’s usually listed as “pearlescence” in the ingredients list (probably because no one wants to put fish on their face). It’s found mostly in lipstick and is used to make it shiny, like the scales on a fish. You can find more details about it at the following links:

http://animals.howstuffworks.com/fish/herring-info.htm

http://www.businessinsider.com/15-surprising-things-that-contain-animal-products-2014-3

http://www.cosmeticsandskin.com/cdc/pearl-essence.php

If you’re allergic to fish and want to be safe, there are companies like Smashbox that don’t use any animal byproducts in their makeup. However, these companies will use a lot of plant-based material. For example, one of their foundations contains wheat and barley, and other products contain fruit. While Smashbox doesn’t provide an ingredient list on their website, if you go into their stores, you will find a list on the product’s box.

Aside from makeup, a lot of other beauty products contain ingredients that could potentially cause an allergic reaction. Sunscreen is great for your skin in general and super important to wear in the summer; but it can also contain some chemicals (preservatives and fragrances) that can cause contact dermatitis. If you have really sensitive skin that reacts a lot, try putting a bit of sunscreen on your inner forearm before using it all over your body.

An important fact to mention is that, when a company advertises a product as “hypoallergenic,” it does not mean that the product doesn’t contain any of the priority allergens. For example, I know of a facial scrub that is sulfate-free, paraben-free, hypoallergenic, and dermatologist-tested, yet also contains walnuts as one of the main ingredients. There aren’t any standards that these manufacturers have to meet in order to declare a product as hypoallergenic; so take that claim with a grain of salt.

Remember to always do your research before buying products that will come in contact with your skin. There are many makeup companies out there. So, if one product isn’t safe for you, you can almost be certain that another company has a product that is.

Talia

Allergies as Disability: The Pros and Cons

68px-Question_mark_svg

Often, when people find out I am allergic to peanuts, they say: “How do you live without peanut butter?!”  My response is:  “Well, it’s kind of a life-threatening allergy. So…”

Allergies are more of a win than a burden for me. Yes, it can be an annoyance to manage my allergies when I am going to eat out, go to people’s houses for dinner or have business lunches and dinners. That being said, I am pretty satisfied with the idea that I am always endlessly conscious of what I am eating.

I am used to reading labels, asking about ingredients and knowing everything that is in my food. In efforts towards choosing healthy lifestyle options, this is an easy cross-over for me. I have no new habits to form when reviewing foods. Along the same lines, one of the cons in having allergies means having to put out the extra cash for specific foods because of the foods I can or cannot eat.

The idea of labelling people with allergies as having a disability has been brought up in various sectors of society. I feel this would be an interesting concept. I am not sure how that would change lifestyles or benefits (medical) for people with allergies; but it would be nice to have a similar qualification for a tax deduction based on the extra costs that can be associated with purchasing allergen free foods, for example. Another pro of having people with allergies be labeled with “a disability” is the potential for it to create more black and white legislation towards issues like dealing with allergies on airplanes and allergen free areas at sporting venues (to name but a few possibilities).

There are some potential conflations that may come with being labeled with a “disability.” Unfortunately, people may have a hard time identifying something as a disability when it sits outside more traditional physical or mental issues. Allergies are comprised of neither of those, at least in a straightforward sense. So I can understand the frustrations people with allergies might have if others were to equate their disability with having a physical or mental rather than as a stand alone category. As a person with allergies, I have to manage my allergies daily so I do not consume things that will put my life at risk. So I remain unsure how having myself recognized as a person with an allergic disability versus person with allergies would change daily management.

Personally, I am okay with having allergies. Would life be easier without them? Yes. But I have them and, if there are ways that we can lessen the burden financially and socially for people with allergies, I am personally all for that.

Joanna