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Nothing to Sneeze at: Rethinking Childhood Food Allergies

Nothing to Sneeze at: Rethinking Childhood Food Allergies

Over a decade ago, I put myself through college by working as a pre-school teacher at a well-equipped private school. The job was often challenging, as four year-olds can be, but one of the more nerve wracking and daunting responsibilities was caring for and protecting one particular child named Lily (not her real name). Now Lily wasn’t a particularly fragile child, nor was she picked on any more or less than anyone else, but Lily, as her parents reminded me almost weekly, had severe food allergies. So much so that if she were to innocently run her hand along a table that held a trace of peanut oil left over from a long forgotten peanut butter and jelly sandwich, well she would likely go into anaphylactic shock, or at least puff up like a puffer fish (as Lily once said to me). Thankfully, with tireless diligence and commitment, I was able to avoid such incidents by maintaining clean tables and keeping other nut-munching children at other lunch tables across the room as they consumed their contraband.

Then a funny thing happened. One day, Lily’s mother brought her into school and said that she had enrolled Lily in an experimental program that would effectively “cure” her severe food allergies. I was skeptical on the inside, but enthusiastic on the outside. From what her mother told me over the following weeks was that Lily was going in for testing and various controlled exposure therapies, and that within a few months, she should be “normal.” Again, I was encouraging but skeptical. A few months passed, and Lily was soon declared allergy-free. While her parents were not quite comfortable with the idea of slathering their child with peanut butter, they didn’t seem to be at all concerned about exposure, or even the possibility of her consuming something containing nuts. Miracle cure or coincidence?

Really, it is difficult to know. Now recent news has come to light about how misdiagnosed food allergies are on the rise, while parents continue to unnecessarily avoid particular foods and are spending loads of dough on costly non-allergenic supplements. Needless to say this complicates matters and undoubtedly feeds into parental insecurities. Many of these misdiagnosed food allergies are the result of false positive blood tests that erroneously label children with severe food allergies, sending them on a lifetime of particular eating and vigilant label reading. According to The New York Times, more than eleven million Americans, including three million children, are estimated to have food allergies, most commonly to milk, eggs, peanuts and soy. In addition, general food allergies among children have increased eighteen percent in the last ten years. All things considered, with the upswing in positive diagnosis comes more of a frequency of misdiagnosis, as both parents and doctors come to rely on singular blood tests, rather than a series of tests or the option of administering multiple tests over time. These blood tests, while enormously useful, tend to be somewhat unreliable because they are unable to accurately distinguish between similar proteins in different foods.

But wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry? Well, yes, but besides the relative hassle of keeping children nut-free or wheat-free into perpetuity, there is the issue that by routinely avoiding foods that fall into the suspect category, you might be compounding the problem by creating more sensitivity to certain foods once your child finally tries them. This coupled with the fact that, in very extreme cases, some children are at risk of malnutrition if they are unable to obtain certain vitamins and nutrients only found in the forbidden foods.

So, one answer is to test, test, and test again (with more than one diagnostic method), if your child tests positive to any food allergies. It is often that children routinely grow out of specific allergies (milk, wheat, eggs, and soy, but not so much with nut allergies), which means that a particular dietary regimen at two years old, might not be what the good doctor orders at five.

If anyone out there has first-hand experience with overcoming childhood food allergies, or even an informed opinion on the matter, I am sure everyone would love to hear it. Feel free to sound off.

Read more: Allergies, Babies, Children, Diet & Nutrition, Family, Healthy Schools, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

26 comments

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5:18PM PDT on Mar 22, 2012

Thanks for this article.

4:25PM PDT on Sep 30, 2010

Most of the cures for allergies (beestings, foods, fabrics) are based on the theory of desensitization. This is the belief that if the sufferer is exposed to minute doses in gradually increasing amounts, he will become desensitized and not react when the real exposure comes along. This has worked in just enough casss to keep the treatment alive. BUT, the converse is also true. Building up a presumed tolerance with graduated amounts can suddenly reach a level where a WORSE reaction is provoked, throwing a person into shock, even death. When I was 11, I nearly died from my "ragweed shot," which had been weekly, with only soreness. After that, I refused all other treatment and hid behind airconditioners during ragweed season. As an adult I have solved it. Every August, I get out there with a gas-powered Stihl weed whacker with a nasty circular blade and I cut down every last stalk of ragweed I can find. I have a vest with big letters RAGWEED PATROL and I'll trespass on construction sites, school grounds, parking lots, roadsides and people's yards, anywhere I see it. Cut it down just before it blooms, it cannot seed and it wont come back. I am now 95% free of hayfever and a lot of parents whose kids used to start school with this humiliating illness have been calling me a hero.

10:53AM PDT on Jul 26, 2010

My youngest has multiple allergies which were confirmed, not diagnosed, with blood tests. He has severe reactions to food he is allergic to, even getting reactions from being in the kitchen wwhile cooking eggs for example. It's important to make sure that as parents we help our children with allergies meet their nutritional needs. Gluten free bread is available high fiber, for example, typically a low fiber bread. My son's allergist is hopeful that he will outgrow his allergies, but until then, avoiding his allergens at all cost is best.

8:14AM PST on Jan 10, 2010

I am allergic to Peanuts, and only peanuts. I'm always being asked if I can eat tree-nuts, which of course, I can.
I've found out in recent years, through having to read every label I come across, that peanut oil can be a hidden ingredient in many food items. I read somewhere that Arachis oil is the most common alternate name for peanuts. So, one has to be hypervigillant about reading labels and being aware of alternative names for peanuts and know which is what and how to deal with it, should there be an emergency situation involving someone with a peanut allergy. If you can eat Soy, there is a wonderful substitute for peanut butter that is made with soy nuts. They have all the flavor, with none of the allergen issues. You can even buy "honey-roasted" or "unsweetened" soy nut butter. It's also lower in fat content than regular peanut butter. However, in some places, it could cost up to $1.00 more than regular peanut butter. I have tried this myself and find that the extra cost is definitely worth it, and you can make goodies from fudge to cookies with it and no one is the wiser!

7:47PM PDT on Jun 15, 2009

Thanks to Cornelia... Once she mentioned hidden ingredients in one data base, i visited http://www.foodfacts.com in March after her Mar 19th post, and I'm hooked! My whole family is sharing recipes and talking about all the best places to eat where they cater specifically to food allergies, sensitivities and general healthy eating! Woo Hoo!

11:37PM PDT on Jun 14, 2009

thanks...
Kabin
Konteyner

6:01PM PDT on Apr 7, 2009

~Christina Sanchez

I surprisingly have no food allergies but i am sensitive when it comes to eating fish. Whenever i eat fish i have an unusual feeling in my stomach that causes me to eventually vomit later. I try to avoid it and otherwise I'm fine.But i seem to have some mild form of eczema which i get few dry patches, but none of my family has any skin issues what so ever. We have some heart problems but that's another story.

When it comes to allergies, I think that parents shouldn't flip over every little thing. At least let them try to experiment. This could cause them to have Mal nutrition from these supposed "allergies" . Like what this blog said, many people are misdiagnosed with food allergies they don't have. I think the subject in which the parents are concerned and trying to keep them safe is that they shouldn't worry so much. If something doesn't happen for this alleged food allergy, then you know that your child was not allergic. If something does happen, you know to be watchful of what foods they eat. This is what my mom sort of did to me and my brother. My brother is apparently allergies to milk and wheat. I doubt it because he has been eating cheese and bread all his life and nothing has happened. In my opinion, the parents shouldn't be too concerned.

7:59PM PDT on Apr 2, 2009

As a child and adult I was constantly ill. I also suffered from exercise induced asthma. In my early 40's I started eliminating foods from my diet and discovered that what an allergist had said to me in 2000 had actually been the case - I was allergic to about 90% of foods on the market. I now eat a very healthy diet - mostly non-package/altered foods, organic, and ancient grains along with whatever meat I need and as another individual indicated - NO SOY. I used to be able to eat peanut butter as a child but now I cannot - I have a feeling its likely the GMO issue since peanuts have been so altered, along with soy, that they really aren't what they used to be. There are a couple soy's out of China that have never been altered and its interesting to note that there do not appear to be allergies to it.

3:50PM PDT on Mar 30, 2009

Funny that all of the food allergies are all things that are GMO's. I myself was told I had food allergies to Milk products, Eggs, Wheat, and was told I was gluten intolerant. I eat all of them. I just eat an organic version with NO SOY!!! None zero. I will not buy from a farmer that uses soy. Now some Doctors are telling people they might be allergic to beef. LOL I find that pretty funny. Peanut allergies used to be very rare. But after they started genetically modifying stuff it is really common and scary. People die. I think it is more than time to ban the GMO's.

8:35AM PDT on Mar 23, 2009

Our child developed eczema at one month, along with terrible crying bouts for eight hours a day. We tried various things with little success and thought it was just colic that we had to "live through." The medical profession offered nothing but increasingly powerful drugs, some of which were not even approved for his age. He tested negative for food allergies at four months old. At age two, he was in such misery that we finally took him to a homeopathic doctor who suggested we go dairy free. It took about three or four weeks before we began to see improvement and it was very depressing for the rest of us for a while to have to change our diet so much. But he began to improve and is now 95% eczema free. He still gets a little bit of dairy in some things he eats occasionally (it's hard to say no all the time). We buy mostly organic foods and we have gotten used to less dairy (for some things, we make his portion and then add the cheese or whatever for ours). He drinks rice milk and takes calcium supplements. We are all much happier! I don't know what exactly about the dairy was causing the problem, since he tested negative, but it just goes to show you can't always rely on allergy testing. He is almost four now and always asks, does this have cow's milk in it? before he eats something. I also believe preservatives and refined sugar aggravate his symptoms. He takes probiotic and omega 3,6,9 supplements daily and we use aloe cream.

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Inspiring ideas, thanks! I have been wondering what to do with the nibs in my cupboard.

ty

Pretty neat. Thanks Diane.

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I love vegan varieties of dark chocolate and I sprinkle cacao nibs on my cereal. I also make drinks…

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