Older Rants from the Chef

Why I Blog About Food

     I discovered a few years ago that I am allergic to:


     peas

     yeast
     corn

     Peas are easily avoided, but traces of yeast show up in quite a few foods and corn is practically ubiquitous.  I made serious adjustments to how I cooked and what I ate.  Just when I thought I had that situation under control, our little grandson, who eats at our house pretty often, turned up allergic to:


     peas

     lentils
     all beans, including traces of soy (except favas)
     eggs
     dairy, including goat's milk
     wheat
     sesame
     tree nuts (except pine nuts and coconuts)
     peanuts

     Yikes. That finished it. Suddenly I didn't know how to cook anymore. I could steam some broccoli (and not add butter to it) or broil a piece of meat (and put no condiments on it), but all the delicious dishes for which I had collected recipes over the years were suddenly off the table.


     After I got tired of saying that I used to be a  good cook, I started over from the beginning.  I  experimented with substitutions in old favorites, checked out some useful new ingredients,  and reinvented my cooking style.  I learned to cook without the usual allergens.  The recipes in this blog are the result. I hope they will be useful to other folks dealing with multiple food allergies.


     This page, though, will be for serious discussions/crazy rants on issues that come up in living with food allergies.




Rant #1 So What Doesn't Contain Corn?            Nov. 16, 2014   

     When I was first diagnosed with a corn allergy, I studied a list of foods that contain corn and noticed two things: 1) The diagnosis was surely right, because I recognized so many foods I knew I reacted to, and 2) corn was lurking in a lot of places I would never have thought of.  I actually asked my allergist whether it wouldn't be more efficient to give us a list of foods that are corn-free, since that would obviously be a much shorter list. I believe she thought I was joking. 

     Shopping turned into a scavenger hunt in which the goal was to find something to eat that wasn't on the dreaded list. My first trip to Walmart after that diagnosis was eye-opening.  Skip the bakery section, because most wheat flour contains cornstarch and because baking powder and yeast both generally contain corn. Skip much of the produce section, because the wax they put on tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, apples, etc. is usually made from corn. Skip the meat section, because it's  corn-fed, which can be a problem.  Skip meat or any other product that comes on a styrofoam tray, because the tray is probably coated with a corn product. Skip anything covered with plastic wrap, because that too has a corn-based coating.  Watch out for soap, mouthwash, shampoos, lotions and toilet paper till you can figure out which brands are corn-free.  Stay out of the cereal aisle: even the few cereals that don't list corn as an ingredient come inside a bag coated with a corn-based wax. Forget about sugar, spices, iodized salt, pickles  and condiments: they usually contain some corn. Forget about canned tomato products: they contain citric acid made from corn.  Don't get milk, cream, orange juice or anything else that comes in a paperboard carton covered with (corn-based) wax. Don't buy soda pop: it's made with either corn syrup or artificial sweeteners made from corn. Beer, too, contains plenty of corn, as does some wine. Don't buy processed foods: the chemical additives are mostly made out of corn. Watch out for rice or anything else enriched ("enriched" means "we added vitamins buffered with cornstarch"). Yikes.


     I came back from that trip with bananas, a bag of potatoes and culture shock. Fortunately, there are some websites that are really useful for helping you work around a corn allergy:


cornallergens.com

the "Avoiding Corn" stream at delphiforums.com
cornallergygirl.com/
http://corn-freefoods.blogspot.com/ 
allergen-free-cuisine.blogspot.com 
http://www.bobseyes.net/how-my-food-elimination-diet-works/ 

     Over time, you figure out which specific foods contain enough corn to be a problem for you. For example, I can't tell that I react to spices or salt, so I don't worry about the tiny amount of corn they may add to a dish. On the other hand I don't eat "pancake syrup" (maple-flavored corn syrup) or lick too many envelope flaps at once, because those are definitely problems for me. Most of the time I muck about in some middle ground trying not to get too much corn without actually living on bananas and plain potatoes.


     You also learn which stores have actual corn-free foods (local coops and health-food stores, not Walmart).


     What if corn had to be listed on the "allergy information" part of every food label? Why doesn't it? It's not one of the very most common food allergies, but it's not far from it either.  In this country, where corn is such a staple and so many food and other products contain hidden corn, clear labeling would be really helpful. 


     If I were allergic to oysters, I could easily check the "allergy information" part of a food label in one glance and know whether the food contained shellfish or not, because "fish and shellfish" is one of the eight most common food allergens.  That's fine, but let's talk about real life here. I wouldn't need to check every label every time for an oyster allergy, because there is no chance of "hidden oyster" turning up in a package of sour cream, a jar of strawberry jam or a box of gluten-free wafers.  Nobody has smeared oyster juice on the fruit in the produce section or put it in all the sodas. It's not in the icing of any cake in the bakery section, it's not in the toothpaste, and it won't turn up in the toilet paper. It's the corn allergy sufferers who really need help, even more than some of the people for whom the current allergy information labels were designed.  


     The most useful corn allergy info might be a rating of how corn-contaminated a product is rather than a simple "contains corn." Labeling everything in the grocery store "contains corn" wouldn't help people with a mild or moderate corn allergy to make good decisions nearly as much as a good rating system.


     The obvious complaint from the corn lobby would be that allergy labeling for corn would require a major retooling of the food industry. Manufacturers are used to adding citric acid, artificial flavors, dextrose, monosodium glutamate and many other ingredients without knowing or caring what those ingredients were made from. This is true, but it's also the very reason we need allergen labeling for corn.


Rant #2 Restaurant Misadventures                        
December 26, 2014
                                          
     I sometimes see advice on eating out with allergies. This shows up on TV, in women's magazines and, especially, in the magazines in the waiting room at my allergist's. It always sounds reasonable and I expect it's well-intentioned, but I don't think it's made up by people who actually have food allergies. Here I tell some of my own restaurant misadventures and give advice that I think may actually be useful.  

The Ale Works


     The first time we took our grandkid out to eat, aged 1-1/2 or so, it was to a work-related party (20 or so people on Friday night at the Ale Works, a local restaurant).  I followed the sensible, standard advice of  bringing precise lists of our respective food allergens.  This can, in fact, aid communication with the staff, especially if the list has more than a couple of items on it. If everything on the menu is problematic, you can send the list to the cook with the question "What can we eat here?" 


     I did spot a pasta dish that I thought might work for the grandkid and me with only minor tweaks: "Pedro's--linguine with fresh tomatoes, basil, pine nuts and chevre" with a note in the margin, "gluten-free penne available on request." First I asked the waitress to find out whether there was any sauce or other ingredient not mentioned in the menu description and whether the gluten-free penne were made of rice or the corn-quinoa blend that you sometimes find. It was rice, and we ordered some with an extra plate and a request that the cheese be on the side. I didn't ask to have the tomato either peeled or on the side (because of the likelihood that it was coated with corn-based wax) or ask about other sources of corn, because that would've been endless and unmanageable for an already busy staff. The cook sent the waitress back to tell us that chevre is goat cheese and therefore doesn't count as a dairy product. I sent her back with the message that the kid was allergic to goat cheese too, so yes it did need to be on the side. Our food did eventually arrive and it was fine.  The cook had put the pine nuts on the side as well and sent us a reminder that they are considered a nut (this was unnecessary but harmless). Unfortunately, the waitress had gotten flustered/distracted by then and brought a dish covered with pancetta to the colleague who had specifically mentioned he didn't want any pork products.


     That was a learning experience, and here is what I took away from it:


1. Friday night when a crowd of people are waiting is not a great time to have long discussions about the food with the staff.  They're already really busy. Consider eating out at quieter times, when your food issues won't create as much havoc in the kitchen. Also, don't be surprised if it takes a while to get your food.


2. When you have created more than your share of havoc, making the wait staff run back and forth with odd questions and/or forcing the cook to mess with his recipes, you should at least recognize what you've done and leave a good tip. Incidentally, if you go back sometime, it may help if they remember you as a good tipper and not only as a nuisance customer.


3.  The sensible-sounding advice of good communication with the wait staff and the cheery claim that people with food allergies can safely eat out too, with a few simple precautions, do not really apply in the case of a corn allergy. Corn lurks in many ingredients that most people (including restaurant cooks) would never suspect. Personally, I refuse to be the customer with a long checklist of daft-sounding questions: Is your salt iodized?  Is the rice enriched? Does your sour cream have cornstarch in it? Does your baking powder have cornstarch in it? Was that cheese made using a corn-derived enzyme? Did that steak come from a cow that ate a lot of corn? Do you leave the peels on your tomatoes? Is the honey on the table really honey-flavored corn syrup? The cook does not have easy access to all the answers you are looking for and will think you're a nut. In any case, there's no need to ask because the answer to most of these questions will be "yes." In addition, the grill is probably cleaned using grill oil made from corn and soy, and the oil in the fryer is most likely a mixture of corn and soy. (If it's not, then it is likely canola oil, which also contains corn.) 


     My advice is to recognize that restaurant food has corn in it and plan accordingly. My own corn allergy is mild enough that I can eat out once in a while, just avoiding the obvious corn (that is, obvious to a person who has an idea where corn is lurking) and bringing an inhaler. A severe corn allergy would be a good reason for avoiding restaurants or, in a pinch, calling ahead to ask whether it would be all right if one member of a large group brought their own food.  



     How did the folks with celiac get "gluten-free" to be a thing? Maybe the best plan for corn-allergics is to study how that was done and make sure that "corn-free" is the next big thing. 

Hastings, McDonalds and Other Chains

     I like to have coffee at the coffee shop in the local Hastings now and then, and occasionally I ask about the ingredients in their baked goods, e.g. is the filling in that pie thickened with cornstarch? I always receive the same answer:  all their required lists of ingredients have been duly turned in to the correct State of Montana office in Helena and it may be possible to get such information from that office. 

     I once went to a local McDonald's and asked what kind of oil they used in their fryer. I was handed a Nutrition Facts statement. I explained that I already knew the French fries were full of fat and calories, but that I needed to know what the fryer oil was made of. The clerk gave me a look like I was a three-headed snake and asked me to come back when some other manager was there.

     I was initially puzzled by these experiences. When I ran a small restaurant in the same town a few years ago, the health department was quite insistent that we needed to be able to answer questions about ingredients for customers with allergies or other food concerns. Apparently large chains get different treatment than small restaurants. Anyway, here is my next piece of advice:

4. Forget chains. I recommend small restaurants that actually do their own cooking. They tend not to use the many food additives made from corn and soy that  processed foods are full of. They typically are also a lot better at answering questions about their food. Some chains do list their ingredients online, but the individual food items tend to have long lists with many allergens. 

Johnny Carino's

     The first time we took the grandkid to Johnny Carino's for dinner we asked our waitress whether there was a nonwheat pasta available, and if so what it was made from (rice? corn/quinoa?). She said they didn't use wheat pasta. I tried again: The regular pasta is made of wheat. The kid is allergic to wheat. Do you have another kind of pasta? She insisted that no, no, we don't use wheat pasta or anything like that.  Finally I asked, "Do you have a gluten-free menu?"  They did. This brings me to my next piece of advice.

5. Don't ask for "wheatless," "wheat-free" or "nonwheat."  In the minds of some part of the public, including some food service workers, "wheat" means "brownish." Ask for "gluten-free." 

Sola Cafe

     I joined a couple of friends for lunch at Sola Cafe with my grandson once when he was about 2.  Sola Cafe had enormous display cases showing off an extensive range of salads, baked goods, and other foods.  While waiting for a table, I remarked that the kid was allergic to everything on display. A waitress who happened to be walking past us just then stopped and assured us there was no problem because they "have a really good kids' menu." I found this quite an odd remark, because foods on kids' menus are mostly made of wheat and dairy (pizza, cheeseburgers, mac' and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches...), the very ingredients that disqualified most of the food in the display cases. We sat down and, sure enough, there was nothing in the place that the kid could eat. This was a disaster. Apparently 2-year-olds don't take well to drawing quietly with crayons while everyone else is eating, even if they have just eaten at home. There they sit with not much to do, in the middle of a large space they're not allowed to explore. Here are a couple of points to take away from this debacle:

6. Some restaurant workers, like many other people, have no clue what an allergy is.  When you say "he's allergic to everything on the menu," they hear "he's a really picky eater."   Keep this in mind when getting their recommendations.

7. Sometimes there is nothing for the allergy victim to eat. Remember that leaving is an option. 


Rant #3 Cooking Shows, Food Allergies and Making Cake                                                                                                                 July 7, 2015

     There are lots of cooking shows on cable TV, but most of the foods that show up on them can be described as "otherwise standard recipes with a few tasty allergens added to make them more interesting." I remember one cook-off contestant remarking that anything edible could be dressed up and improved with the addition of bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. I suppose I could gawk at these shows as some kind of "food porn," but I'm more interested in real-life cooking.

     One show that has no connection with real life (at least not with mine) is Chopped. Contestants on Chopped are given baskets of ingredients and compete to see who can make the most amazing dish using all the ingredients in the basket. Generally at least one of the ingredients is some strange processed thing that doesn't really seem to fit with the rest. Well, I never find weird processed foods in my cupboard and decide to "incorporate them" into other dishes.  Processed foods almost never get past the ingredients list check at the grocery store, and they don't just show up in my cupboard by themselves. 

     Another show I can't relate to is Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. The food looks really good (in an allergenic "food porn" kind of way) but I find it really annoying that the host keeps going on about how well she is "multitasking" because, you know, the sauce is reducing at the same time that the rice is cooking and she's making the main course. Back when most people ate home-cooked food regularly, this would have been considered a single task, "making dinner."  Multitasking happens when you're trying to make dinner and the 2-year-old (who is getting hungry) wraps himself around your leg and demands candy, strange loud noises emerge from the 5-year-old's room and the dog throws up on the carpet as the phone starts to ring. This show presumably makes sense to the generation that cooks rarely but elaborately and expects major kudos when they do cook. Food allergies shove you back into a previous generation, one in which the goal was presentable homemade food that didn't make anyone sick and it needed to be reached several times a day. Having allergies to multiple common ingredients does mean less reliance on processed food and more time spent cooking.

     The one Food Network show I find inspiring is Cutthroat Kitchen. Contestants are assigned a dish and get one minute to "shop" in the pantry. Then they have an auction where they "buy" rights to confiscate each other's ingredients and otherwise harass each other. The parallel to life with food allergies is obvious: you have ideas on what you want to cook, but then you discover you need to make it without the usual ingredients and that the kitchen can not be turned into a serene, chaos-free zone every time you go into it. Struggling to produce poutine after your cheese curds have been confiscated?  Yeah, I can relate to that.  Being forced to hold hands with another contestant or wear ski boots the whole time? Comparable to having kids and other chaos in the kitchen. The judge shows up after the food is plated and the debris cleared away and makes no allowances for whatever went on in the kitchen.

     There are lessons we can learn from Cutthroat Kitchen. One is the value of planning ahead: one woman got past the poutine challenge by realizing her cheese curds might be confiscated. She grabbed milk and vinegar while she was in the pantry so she could make her own. Brilliant.

     Another lesson to take away is the possibility of selling alterations from standard recipes as deliberate bits of creativity rather than unfortunate substitutions.  Your cookies fell apart? No, you made a "crumble." Something unfortunate happened to your bread and you only managed to salvage one tiny square of it?  Nope, you thought it was a good day for an open-faced sandwich. Your meatballs came apart in pieces? No, these are "deconstructed" meatballs. This can work if the food tastes good.

     The most hopeful lesson we can learn from Cutthroat Kitchen is that dishes can turn out fine even after multiple major substitutions. The cook-off where a chef makes jambalaya using celery soda, pepper jelly and "onion snacks" instead of the usual celery, peppers and onions--and doesn't lose the round? Awe-inspiring.  The contestant who is eliminated is surprisingly often not one who got stuck with odd ingredients but  one who messed up on fundamentals by under- or overcooking their meat, burning their toast, using too much or too little salt, or producing a sauce that was too greasy or too gloppy. If your food is well-seasoned, cooked properly, and otherwise balanced, then it's good food: following the usual recipe isn't as important as following fundamental cooking principles.

     The final lesson we can learn from Cutthroat Kitchen is that some cooking projects actually are hopeless. If you need to make a good sandwich, you'd better not let someone soak your bread in a tub of water.

     Most recipes can withstand minor substitutions.You don’t, for example, give up on a whole entrée because you’re allergic to dairy and the recipe says to start by sautéing an onion in a mix of olive oil and butter: you replace the butter with extra olive oil. There is a point, though, where you are substituting for too many ingredients and trying hard to adjust your recipe, but the results are not worth the effort. 

     The impossible food at my house is cake. It is the protein in wheat, i.e. the gluten, that holds bubbles in place while cake cooks so that it can come out light and fluffy.  It is, of course, possible to make excellent gluten-free cakes: commercial bakeries are good at this lately. Look at the ingredient lists on commercial gluten-free baked goods, though: they mostly cover for the lack of protein in rice flour by adding other high-protein ingredients (dried whey, powdered eggs, pea flour, garbanzo flour, and/or soy isolate). What do you do if you can't use any of these ingredients?  

     Xanthan gum can be useful, but it comes from vats of fermenting corn.  Being allergic to corn, I didn't want to use it. For a long time I worked hard to create wheat-free, dairy-free, soy-free, egg-free, corn-free cakes that held together and didn't collapse into bricks with the texture of damp sand. Using buckwheat flour for a third or so of the flour helps with the texture, although buckwheat has a strong flavor that doesn't go with every cake.  Flaxseed meal is useful, too. Just when my cakes were getting close to acceptable, it turned out the kids who live next door can't have sugar.  You can replace sugar with stevia, but you have to rework the proportions for the rest of the recipe because stevia isn't as bulky as sugar. 

     Meanwhile my neighbor, who has celiac disease, hosted a birthday party at which she served two cakes which were pretty conventional in spite of having no gluten or sugar. Thanks to my grandson, she also decorated a bunch of apple slices with stevia and cinnamon and baked them in the oven.  The kids at the party did not finish the cakes; they did though, quite happily, gobble up a whole lot of apple slices. I had the revelation that I didn't need to start over and design a cake with 0 conventional ingredients instead of 1 (sugar).  I could actually just quit that. I could bake apples instead, and the results would be at least as good. I could even put a birthday candle in a baked apple if I needed to. I could make something as retro as a baked banana (in about a minute in the microwave) and call it dessert. I could forget about baking altogether and make rice cereal bars. (These are full of corn but don't need to contain the usual cake allergens--dairy, wheat or eggs.  Be sure to pick out the gluten-free rice cereal if gluten is an issue.) Unlike the contestants on Cutthroat Kitchen, folks working around food allergies do not have to accept cooking challenges that are not likely to end well.


Rant #4 So What Can I Drink at a Party?: 
life with a yeast allergy                                            Feb. 3, 2016


     Most people have no idea how true the saying is that "all the good stuff is fermented."  I remember when I thought "fermented foods" referred to a handful of tasty products such as wine, cheese, and kimchi. I was shocked when, having been diagnosed with a yeast allergy, I was given a list of fermented and other yeasty foods to avoid. Yeast bread and alcoholic drinks were at the top of the list, followed by cheese, yogurt, buttermilk and sour cream (there went most dairy foods); everything pickled or containing vinegar (bye-bye, condiments and olives); and soy sauce, tofu and miso (bye-bye most Asian cookery). 

     Unfortunately, the list went on. Other yeasty foods include cured meats, dried fruit, unpeeled fruit, aging leftovers, most Vitamin B tablets, anything with "malt," "hydrolyzed vegetable protein," "citric acid," "lactic acid" or certain other chemicals on the label, and, frankly, most processed foods.  Fast-food French fries are a good example of an apparently simple food that unexpectedly turns out to have had yeast added to it.
     
     There were quite a few foods to watch out for, but I was even more shocked at how many drinks are problematic.  Obviously wine and beer are fermented, but chocolate, coffee, tea and canned and bottled fruit juices were on the list too. Fermentation is used to turn cacao beans into chocolate and to remove the fruit surrounding coffee beans.  Tea is chopped up, damped down and allowed to sit and interact with air for a while; a purist may insist that tea is "oxidized" rather than "fermented," but plainly anything sitting around warm, damp and exposed to air can pick up traces of yeast or mold. As for fruit juice, I guess it's not only pristine, unblemished fruit with nothing growing on it that gets made into juice. 

    Note that yerba matte is not fermented and contains a good dose of caffeine.

     You might think distilled alcohol would have had its yeast removed by the distilling process.  Indeed, I find I do better with mixed drinks than beer or wine, but I react to them too. It is, by the way, possible to be allergic to the alcohol itself. 

     This raises the question I asked my allergist:  So what do I drink at parties?  Sodas are generally full of corn, to which I am also allergic, and I didn't really want to be the unsociable cuss who literally won't drink anything but water . My allergist recommended tea or coffee.  Yes, they've been exposed to fermentation, but they are not nearly as yeasty as, say, a beer or a piece of pizza.  They are not in the same ballpark. This does not mean that every yeast-allergic person can tolerate tea and coffee. Personally, I continue to drink them and can't tell that I react.  Someday I may try going totally yeast-free and see if I can tell the difference, but for the moment I am applying the kind of moderation that allows me to drink something besides water.

     This brings up a major point for living with a yeast allergy.  Having a complete list of everything that could contain yeast is not the whole story.  The amount of yeast matters; the variety of yeast can make a difference too.  Bread yeast is not the same as brewers' yeast or wine yeast. You still have to make sense of which individual foods and drinks are actually a problem for you and which are not. For example, I've realized that for me chocolate is safe enough but vitamin B tablets are not.  Thank God it's not the other way around!
    
     One of the biggest sources of yeast for most people is bread, but even bread covers a spectrum. Some of us can eat biscuits: even if they have had yeast added, they're far less yeasty than yeast bread.*  Reportedly some people can even eat freshly baked yeast bread but not the same bread a day or two later. The yeast is not all killed by the baking, so the bread becomes yeastier as it sits. Note that homemade bread is generally yeastier than commercial bread. Unfortunately, so is most gluten-free bread: getting gluten-free bread to rise is tricky, so they often add extra yeast along with certain other additives.

     Sourdough bread is made with sourdough starter, a mixed bacteria/yeast culture.  Thus, it can contain somewhat less yeast than regular yeast bread.  It's still too yeasty for me, and I have encountered grocery store "sourdough" bread that is actually regular yeast bread with vinegar added to the dough; this is no improvement.


     A word to the wise: homemade wine and beer can be very high in yeast content.  Watch out for that stuff. 

     Kombucha is nonalcoholic, but it is very yeasty.


*Homemade biscuits, of course, are made with baking soda or baking powder and do not contain yeast. The same is not true of commercially made biscuits: they often add a small amount of yeast. Does anyone have a recipe for good, fluffy gluten-free biscuits that contain no yeast, eggs, dairy, soy or other bean derivatives (e.g., soy flour, garbanzo flour), corn derivatives (including xanthan gum), pea flour or nut derivatives (e.g. almond milk, almond flour)?  Please put it in the Comments; I will be eternally grateful!



Rant #5  Dangerous Myths and Misconceptions About  Food Allergies                                                        June 8, 2016

     By the time Eren, my grandson, was 2 months old, he'd had allergy testing and his mom had a list of foods she shouldn't eat.  It was obvious from very early on that Eren had rashes and serious asthma attacks if his mom ate dairy products.  She quit eating dairy and he had fewer attacks, but they didn't stop altogether. A handful of pinpricks on the kid's back, and she knew not to eat dairy, wheat, soy or eggs and nurse him. This made a huge difference in keeping the boy healthy during infancy.

     One noteworthy point here is that, although doctors often prefer to wait until a child is 5 years old or so and his/her allergies have become pretty much stable before ordering allergy tests, it is possible, and sometimes vital, to have them done at much earlier ages.  Skip your kid's pediatrican or GP and go straight to an allergist if you need to.  

     Before Eren ever even ate solid food, we made an important discovery about coping with food allergies:  there are plenty of dangerous myths and misconceptions floating about, and some of them are found on food labels. 

     One claim we heard repeatedly was that goats' milk would be fine. This is one yarn I actually looked up: it turns  out that ~80% of kids who are allergic to cows' milk are also allergic to goats' milk. Likewise, children allergic to cows' milk have an ~80% chance of being allergic to sheep's milk.

     There is "hypoallergenic" cows' milk formula on the market, the claim being that it has been so thoroughly processed and the proteins in it are so denatured that it won't trigger an allergy attack.  Eren had nasty allergy attacks both times we tried it. This stuff is probably useful for babies with a mild allergy to milk, but in case of a severe allergy it's best to be skeptical of both "common knowledge" and food labelling.

     When it was time to start Eren on solid food, he had more allergy testing. He came up positive for:

     soy 
     eggs
     dairy
     wheat
     peanuts
     tree nuts 

     While learning to feed him safely, we encountered even more myths:
  • Butter won't trigger an allergy to dairy, because butter is a fat rather than a protein, and allergies are reactions to foreign proteins. Eren used to react to any food that was cooked with even a tiny amount of butter: apparently there are too many milk proteins lurking in butter for at least some people allergic to cows' milk.
  • You can replace butter with ghee, which is butter with all the water and protein removed.  Nope, ghee made the kid sick too.
  • A plant oil is safe even if you're allergic to the plant, as it's the proteins in the plant that are allergenic, not the oil. The federal government actually buys this story: the presence of soybean oiI in a food has to be noted in the list of ingredients but does not have to be listed in the "Allergen Information."  Meanwhile, it's notorious that people with peanut allergies react to food fried in peanut oil, and I observed Eren start wheezing and gasping for air when someone gave him candy corn containing a bit of soybean oil.
  • Older, less domesticated wheat varieties have less gluten, so they're safe.  Gluten may or not be the offending protein in the case of a wheat allergy, and the claim that a food is safe because it only has half the usual dose of poison is plainly absurd.
  • If you're allergic to soy, you can still eat other kinds of beans. We quickly realized that every kind of bean, pea or lentil made Eren sick, and I asked his pediatrician about that. She told me that, oh yes, most people who are allergic to soy are allergic to other beans too. Soy is the one they test for because it turns up as an additive in so many foods. The idea is that if you eat a plate of green beans and get sick you'll probably make the connection, while an allergy to soy could manifest itself as a chronic illness with no clear cause.
  • Favas are a bean.  Although favas, like beans, are a legume, they're a vetch rather than an actual bean.  Most people who are allergic to beans can eat favas with impunity. We planted them in our garden and were able to eat legumes after all.
  • Coconuts are a kind of nut. Coconuts do not grow on nut trees; they grow on palm trees. Neither the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology nor the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network considers them to be tree nuts. The European Union does not consider them to be nuts.  They are not cross-reactive with nuts. (That is, a person with a nut allergy is not especially more likely to be allergic to coconuts than anyone else.) Nevertheless, the FDA considers coconuts to be tree nuts and requires tree nut allergy labeling for foods containing coconut. (Do note that some people are allergic to coconut.)
  • Sesame and other seeds are surely good substitutes for nuts and peanuts in recipes. Sesame and some other seeds, unlike coconut, are cross-reactive with nuts and peanuts; that is, someone with a nut or peanut allergy is more likely to be allergic to them. Other than coconut having "nut" in its name, it is inexplicable that coconuts elicit a "Contains tree nuts" in "Allergy Information" labeling while sesame seeds do not. Be very, very careful introducing seeds if your child has a nut or peanut allergy. (I think allergists ought to point this out every time a nut allergy is diagnosed.)  In our ignorance we once gave Eren a taste of halvah (a sesame seed candy) and made him sick. In our ignorance, we also fed him plenty of sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds before we knew enough to worry about them. Fortunately he was not allergic to them.
     Willy-nilly we did learn to make meals that didn't actually poison Eren, and he got on with such important jobs as playing with his dog, smashing the stones in the flower bed, and watching bugs in the yard. As he got older, of course, he began to interact more with people outside the family and eventually headed off to preschool.  Then we discovered some truly dangerous misconceptions about food allergies:
  • "Surely his allergies aren't that big a deal: he's the picture of health! Kids with serious allergies are not necessarily feeble or sickly. It might not seem possible that the energetic little rascal tearing around the yard and laughing is one piece of bread away from his next trip to the hospital, but it is entirely possible.
  • A tiny taste won't matter. Sometimes  it does. We gave Eren, age 1 or so, a tiny taste of humus (before we knew not to give him sesame or garbanzo beans), and watched in horror as he vomited explosively and started gasping for breath. He had an asthma attack once because someone breathed walnut breath in his face.  Food allergies are not always this drastic, of course: I sometimes taste something that contains a bit of corn or yeast, to which I am allergic, without that causing a real problem. Always listen to the parents on this, and believe whatever they say. Similarly, even a tiny amount of an allergen in a food, such as the soy lecithin in a regular candy bar, may be too much. 
  • The parents are wrong: I gave him some, and he was fine. it's impossible to know the kid was fine unless you watched him around the clock for the next couple of days. Sometimes an allergy attack is immediate and unmistakable, and sometimes it kicks in hours later or even the next day. We once had a dinner party for which I made two kinds of meatballs (regular and egg- and wheat-free). One of the guests sneaked Eren a regular meatball while I wasn't looking; when nothing happened immediately, she told us off for being too rigid and controlling and not letting "the poor child" have any of "the good stuff." The facts she missed were that a few hours later he was going to be in the ER struggling to breathe and that he would have to stay there all night. 
  • Daycares and schools are no problem; just list all his allergies in the paperwork. Even when all the right paperwork has been duly turned in, there are still many ways that accidents can happen while you're not watching. It only takes one staff member who has bought into any of the myths or misconceptions about food allergies for something to go wrong. When Eren came home sick after the Halloween party at his first daycare, I asked him if he'd eaten any "special treats" at the party.  Sure enough, he'd been given candy corn (containing soybean oil) and chocolate (containing milk chocolate and soy lecithin). My daughter and I each went over to talk with the staff about that incident. One of the daycare workers protested: "But we did check his list of allergens and he's not allergic to chocolate." When she finally realized I was talking about the small amounts of soy and milk in the candy, she was astonished. "Oh my, those are ingredients you wouldn't normally think about." That was a good teachable moment, but my recommendation is to make sure that everyone who might touch an allergic child's food is clear on the "whole ingredients list, every time" rule before school starts.  Also, if the "allergic to nuts and peanuts" note in a kid's paperwork means not "do not feed him a peanut butter sandwich" but "will become sick if someone breathes peanut breath on him" or "it's not safe for him to rub elbows with someone wearing sunscreen that contains walnut oil," this needs to be pointed out clearly.
  • Monitoring everything a kid is given to eat should do the trick. Little kids are sociable; sometimes they share treats among themselves. Eren once put himself into the hospital by accepting a bite of a Nestle Drumstick from a little buddy after someone passed out ice cream treats to his kindergarten class during a field trip. He theoretically knew not to do that, but, well, sometimes 6-year-olds exercise terrible judgment. Teaching a child what foods to avoid is vital, but so is extreme vigilance.
     On one other occasion Eren ate ice cream that had some peanut in it. That time, at age 7-1/2, my best little buddy suffocated on his way to the hospital.  This blog is now dedicated to his memory. 



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