Food Allergy Myths and Facts ...
There are a lot of misconceptions around food allergies. Which is why awareness and education regarding this topic is so crucial. Food is fuel. It fuels are body and keeps us alive. Without it, the world is without us. For anyone who navigates the difficult world of food allergies this vital life function becomes not only just a fundamental to life but something that may drastically hinder it.
I am highlighting some common myths and misconceptions about food allergies that I have heard (multiple) times since learning about El’s food allergies in 2017. And, from the community that I am apart of, I know this is not unique to just us.
Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerances
Yes, there is a difference. A food allergy is an immune system response. An intolerance is a digestive system reaction.
As we know, our immune system is designed to keep us healthy and fight off bad bacteria and infection, when it senses something is wrong it fights it. When a food allergen is consumed the body overreacts to the food and triggers a protective response by producing igE or immunoglobulin E (antibodies). The antibodies then travel throughout the body attaching to cells and releasing histamine which creates the allergic reaction a person feels.
A food intolerance is a chemical or gut reaction that can make a person very uncomfortable as their body does not properly breakdown the enzymes or additives in food, but does not produce a potentially life threatening reaction.
A person with an intolerance can consume small amounts of the food that makes them uncomfortable without experiencing a reaction. Unlike a food allergies. A person with a food allergy can go into anaphylaxis with the tiniest amount of allergen from direct ingestion, cross-contamination, inhalation or skin contact.
A food allergy reaction is typically more visual by starting on the skin with hives, itching and/or swelling as well as gastrointestinal symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea. Respiratory symptoms are also common, but typically do not appear on their own, such as difficulty breathing. Anaphylaxis is a serious reaction that (usually) occurs suddenly after contact with an allergen and produces multiple signs of an allergy. Commonly, but not always, presenting difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness and dizziness paired with other symptoms from an allergic reaction.
Mild vs. Severe Food Allergies
Myth. I hear this often, even from people with allergies – “I just have a mild allergy”. False. There is no such things as a “mild allergy” you can certainly have a mild reaction, but all (true) allergies have the potential to be severe.
The body produces igE (immunoglobulin E) antibodies each time the allergenic food enters your body, the antibody response producing histamine has the potential to get more severe each time. Food allergies are also unpredictable as you may have a mild reaction the first time and severe the next, or instantly have a severe reaction without prior knowledge of the allergy.
Mild reactions are typically only going to present one body response such as itching, swelling, hives or gastrointestinal issues, this can typically be remedied by an antihistamine such as Benadryl. A severe reaction is anaphylaxis and the only emergency treatment for anaphylaxis is Epinephrine (Epipen or Auvi-Q).
Eating a Little Won't Hurt ...
Myth. Consuming the smallest amount of an allergen can cause a potentially life threatening reaction.
I will never forget walking into a bakery with El when she was just a baby. We were just going in to grab a quick coffee and be on our way. The beautiful bakery was full of natural light, a big glass case displaying their mouth watering homemade baked goods from bagels to scones, cakes and breads. Behind it was a sprawling open kitchen with a handful of cheerful faces kneading and mixing away. The five minutes we were in the shop to grab coffees and then walk to our car with little El in my arms was enough to set her wheat allergen into full reactive mode. She instantly swelled up on her face and broke out in hives. Immediate dosed Benadryl and we continued to watch her closely over the next couple minutes. No other symptoms progressed and the Benadryl seemed to stop and reduce the swelling (slightly) as we monitored her.
To say “a little won’t hurt” is the phrase that makes me the most angry as a food allergy mom. I keep my frustration internal and release it by taking the opportunity to share awareness and pass on the facts I am knowledge of … And, usually throw in a personal story or two.
I share this specific story to highlight that a food allergen (similar to how environmental allergens are) do not need to be ingested to be dangerous. And, the smallest amount of an allergen which triggers an immune response has the potential to be severe. Whether walking into an open concept bakery, cross-contamination or actual ingestion, it can all be potentially life threatening.
Peanut is the Most Severe Food Allergy
Myth. Yes, peanut is a very severe food allergy. It is one of the top 9 most common food allergies with tree-nut, dairy, egg, wheat, soy, sesame, shellfish and fish. Together these 9 make up 90% of all food allergies. But ANY food has the potential to be an allergen, there are 100s of documented food allergens which is why proper labeling of ingredients and manufacturing is so vital, especially to food allergy families.
Each one of the top 9 allergies also has multiple components to look for on labels and within ingredients. Example, if you have a dairy allergy you need to avoid casein, ghee, whey, cream, diacetyl, butter, cream and buttermilk. Lactose free milk still has the milk protein that causes the allergic reaction. A dairy allergy means you need to avoid anything with cows milk protein.
Similarly with eggs, wheat, soy and others, there are many ways these items are used in the production of food and may not be labeled as “egg” or “wheat” making it imperative that people with these allergies understand all the variations that can be put on a label.
Read the Label Every Time on Everything
Fact. Labeling laws are incrementally better than they were, but unfortunately we still have aways to go. For anyone with food allergies this may be one of the most daunting tasks of shopping and discovering new foods. Albeit, I love being able to discover new things that I can get for El, it is certainly a process you need to have extra time for.
Even buying the same brand, in the same size, from the same store every week I have to read the label. Anything can change at anytime without the need for the manufacture to broadly display that on the packaging. We read it before purchase, before we put it away at home and before we place it on her plate or in her hand. Every time.
Example, we used a certain brand of gluten-free all purpose flour for the longest time (like two years) then one day I was reading the bag as I was putting it away (purchased via online/delivery not in store) and the label of “processed in dedicated GF, egg free facility” was no longer there. Let the research commence. I looked online and their processing had changed. I had to make a call to the company for more information and yup, they were now producing the “Gluten-Free” flour in the same place as some of their processed goods that contain egg and dairy and though still GF, there is potential for cross-contamination of egg and dairy. A no-go for us.
Also, just because something is safe in one packaged size does not mean it is in a different size. A lot of smaller pack size or ‘treat size’ items are packaged in a different facility than the larger packaged items. This means the same item, same brand, same label, but just a different size could be produced on shared equipment with other allergens.
Especially ‘off-brand’ names. Cheerios are gluten-free however the grocery story brand (where we are) are not. Always read labels, every single time for every single thing. This also holds true with arts and craft supplies like paint and clay, cleaning products for the home and beauty products like shampoo, conditioner and soaps.
Scrubbing with Soap and Water to Remove Allergens
Fact. Many studies have been done looking at the validity of various cleaning methods specifically related to peanuts. Peanut butter is especially difficult to clean. It smears, sticks and easily remains in cracks and holes. The common denominator across all the studies conducted over multiple years shows that the most effective way to remove an allergen, especially peanut butter, is with soap and water. Other multipurpose cleaners and wipes with soap were effective too. Antibacterial spray or gel, and just water, were not effective at removing the peanut protein from hands or surfaces.
If you are not able to get to a sink and wash your hands with soap and water the next best thing is to scrub/wipe your hands off well with baby-wipes/wet-wipes (not water wipes).
This prevents cross-contact, leaving residue and allergens on shared toys, supplies and playgrounds. As a mom, I understand the taxing nature of the broken-record “go wash your hands”, “don’t take that food in there…”, etc. It’s just another thing we are constantly harping on our kids for and sometimes we just don’t. We forget to ask, follow up, or honestly don’t have the energy any longer that day for.
With zero blame or shame game, this is also what makes it difficult for for food allergy parents to visit friends house, have playdates outside their house, go to playgrounds, go to restaurants or any type of party or gathering. It is certainly not for the fact “we don’t want to” (though maybe sometimes it is …), it’s usually because of the anxiety, stress and uncomfortable nature of hovering over our children in a new environment. Food smears, it crumbles, it gets embedded in clothes, fingernails, toys, on playground equipment and fabric. It then also transfers to the clothes, hands, mouths of food allergy kiddos that have no control over the environment, other kids actions or the outcome.
To all the food allergy parents out there, I see you, I feel you and you are doing AMAZING!! Here’s to hoping there is one more person in the world who understands food allergies a little better than they did 10 minutes ago.