In 2006, “top eight” allergen labeling became mandated by the United States Food and Drug Administration in all packaged foods manufactured and marketed in the US. The top eight food allergens are milk, egg, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans. At that time it became easier for consumers to identify what packaged foods contained their allergens.
The ingredients must be listed on the packaging and also identified at the end of the ingredient list as a “Contains” statement, i.e. “Contains: Milk, Egg.”
Many packages also include a “May Contain” statement. This statement is placed on the package to alert consumers that the product may contain food allergens by cross contamination, though it may not be an ingredient in the product. This cross contamination occurs when production lines and equipment are shared with other products made at the same facility. They may produce a product such as a cookie that does not contain peanuts in it’s ingredients, but earlier have produced a peanut butter cracker on the same equipment, thereby creating cross contamination.
The utterly terrifying aspect of “May Contain” statements is that they are completely VOLUNTARY. While I am thankful to the companies that include these alerts, I’m frightened by the products of companies that do not include these cautionary statements. It only takes one tiny peanut protein to incite anaphylaxis in my son. A word of caution to those with food allergies (and the parents of children with food allergies): call the company that produces the products to ensure there is no chance of cross contamination if they do not label with “may contain” statements.
While the US has come a long way in product labeling, we still have more work to do in full disclosure regarding packaged food products. My prayer is that “May Contain” labeling becomes mandatory very soon. Be aware and be safe.
Food allergies isolate children and their families. That’s the truth. It’s painful, difficult and defeating all in the same moment. Those are pretty powerful emotions for a child or adult to feel in one concentrated burst, often daily. Children with food allergies have a difficult time participating in all the activities that other children take for granted. Fun childhood experiences like trick or treating, birthday parties, summer camps, Easter egg hunts, Vacation Bible School, and pizza parties at school are not carefree fun for children with food allergies.
They always have to be on alert, keeping their guard up for whatever their poison is: peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, egg, soy, fish, shellfish, wheat and a myriad of other foods.
Be aware that what is an American classic treat, ice cream, could be death for some. We consider our allergens poison because we know they can kill us. It’s hard to get excited about an ice cream party when ice cream is your worst nightmare. Seeing your siblings get excited to have the food that could kill you is a lonely place to be.
And it’s not just the person with food allergies that feels isolated. It’s the entire family. It’s the Mom or Dad of a food allergy child that has to be persistent and aggressive to keep her/his child safe, often to the point of losing friends or being shunned because we are a little “crazy about food allergies.” It’s also the brother or sister of a food allergy child that unfortunately has to skip events, sacrificially, because it’s not safe for the entire family. Who wants to leave their sibling behind, sad and left out, while you go enjoy the party? It’s also the grandparents that have to constantly be alert when their food allergic grandchild is around, upsetting some because of the restrictions that must be in place for the child. Traditions sometimes have to be broken: “Sorry, can’t have boiled peanuts this year at our gathering!”
There is a constant, underlying level of anxiety present when you have food allergies. Social norms are not the norm for us. We are different. We are mocked. We are bullied. We are talked about. How could you not have anxiety when the same food that the world is in love with could kill you? The same food that parties are planned around causes a violent reaction in your body with just a trace. You give up so much that others take for granted. There’s no denying the loneliness of food allergies. So many people just don’t understand and don’t even care to.
But don’t give up hope just yet! There are people that care, that want to help. Cherish them, thank them, return their kindness every chance you get. There are angels that were once bound by food allergies that are now free from that pain and are watching over us. Food allergy kids and adults are resilient. They live through tough days and still smile. They appreciate small acts of kindness with more depth than many. When so many people ignore their plight, the one that shows concern erases away the ones that don’t. It’s the kind of “special” one feels when Jesus leaves the 99 to recover you, the one lost sheep.
Loved, important, wanted.
“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Matthew 18:12-14
Befriending a food allergy family can be tough at first. You’re never really sure how to talk to the parent about their child’s food allergies. How do you ask questions without sounding uninformed or insensitive?
Well, most food allergy families don’t expect you to know much about food allergies. They would love for you to show interest in learning more, for their child’s sake. Short of reading fifty books and doing months of research, the food allergy parent or food allergy sufferer is your best resource for reliable information on food allergies. As a food allergy parent, we wish more people would just start asking questions, show interest in knowing about our child’s struggles with food, and be accepting and respectful of the ‘food safety operational plan’ for our family.
Here are the five questions I wish people would ask me to learn more about my son & his food struggles:
What are your child’s allergies?
A basic understanding of what my child is allergic to is the first component to understanding the entire problem, especially when the child has multiple allergies. Things get more complicated the more food allergies a child suffers from. A lot of people can wrap their head around a peanut allergy, but when you add dairy and egg, safety becomes more difficult to attain. To food allergy parents, a child’s food allergies are part of the description of their child, just like their age, eye & hair color. It’s more important to me that you know my child’s food allergies than his age, as strange as that may sound to some…
What common foods do you have to avoid because of his allergies?
This question opens the door to understanding what is not safe for my child to have. When you start to understand that my child cannot have almost all common kid’s snacks, you begin to realize how dangerous it can be for my child to be around other kids during such an innocent thing as snack time…or birthday parties…or playgrounds where children snack while playing. My food allergic son has only had one peanut butter and jelly sandwich and it nearly killed him. That’s a classic American kid food that he doesn’t eat. Most people take that go-to lunch box food for granted. Some parents say their kids won’t eat anything else. My oldest son used to eat PB&J frequently. Not anymore…
What specific foods are safe for your child to have?
Inquiring about safe foods allows the food allergy parent to tell you what foods their child CAN have. What a nice change to talk about foods my son can enjoy as opposed to what he can’t have. I usually opt to provide all food for my son wherever he goes but there are a select few that I trust understand his allergies and can provide safe food for him.
What can we do to make your child more included?
Oh, what a wonderful word-included! Just ask and we will joyfully answer. There’s always a way to make a food allergy child feel included. Offer toy treats instead of food treats. Play games, draw pictures, listen to music…do things that center around activity instead of eating.
How do you handle accidental ingestion of foods your child is allergic to? What would I need to do in the event that occurs?
Transition the conversation from prevention & inclusion to reaction. Knowing what foods to avoid is vitally important but knowing how to handle an allergic reaction is equally important. Being prepared to handle the possibility of accidental ingestion of an allergen is imperative. Showing that you care enough to ask what to do is monumental to a food allergy parent. I promise, we can whip out an emergency action plan or recite it from memory at any given moment.
This is all a part of our daily lives. Most people don’t want to be bothered with the details of our reality, much less take on the burden. Showing a food allergy family that you care enough to learn more is like throwing out a life preserver to someone who has fallen off the ship into the middle of a storming ocean. That simple act of kindness and compassion will not be overlooked.