My Food Allergy Paradox

Food allergies can be a blessing. Of course, I never believed that sentence when I had my initiation in to the complex and disturbing world of food allergies. I grew up in a time when food allergies weren’t on the radar. None of my schoolmates or close friends had allergies that I can recall and this scenario seems to be a common one in my age group. I attended elementary school in the 1970s when peanut butter sandwiches were all the rage and everyone ate them. As a child, I had no idea what an Epipen was and this blissful ignorance continued well into my 30s until, one Sunday afternoon, my ignorance was shattered by my child’s sudden onset of anaphylaxis.

As I look back now, the moment was slow and surreal, yet it happened so very quickly. I had been delighting my taste buds with some pistachios when my son, who was 5 at the time, asked if he could try one. “Sure!” I replied, always happy when my children wanted to try something new. He unshelled the nut somewhat cautiously and inspected its contents. He wasn’t too sure about this “new” food and so instead of eating the whole nut, he gingerly held it up to his mouth and carefully bit it in half, not wanting to fully commit.

When the nut touched his lips, he instantly had a puzzled almost bewildered look on his face and deliberately turned and stared at me. His brother piped in, “What’s the matter; don’t you like it?” He ran to the trashcan, spit it out and then began to cough. We laughed innocently amused and his sister said, “I guess not!” His coughing continued and he looked up from the trashcan at me confused and flushed. “Hey, are you OK?” I asked. He had a look of panic on his face and I jumped out of my chair. “What’s wrong?” I questioned again. Again, he did not respond but instead tried to wipe his lips feverishly with his hands as if to brush all traces of this new food off of his face. As I watched his movements, time began to slow down as it does when you first sense danger.

He continued to cough and, as I stepped closer, I could see his lips beginning to swell and spider-like veins began to crawl from his lips across his face with an intensely urgent force. My husband, who was repairing the kitchen sink at the time, stopped and stared, too. “I think he’s having a reaction to the nut,” I announced, slowly and with hesitation in my voice. Then, as the reaction unfolded, time sped back up and the faucet blew. Water shot across the room and I urgently fumbled through the kitchen cabinet in a panic, trying desperately to put my hands on some Benedryl. With my husband trying to stop the geyser, I gave my son two teaspoons of Benadryl, but his reaction was too intense for any immediate relief. I grabbed the bottle and my child and raced out the door to my car, leaving the rest of the family and flood behind. Easton was seven miles away and I couldn’t get there fast enough. I had read about food allergies, but had never experienced them before and this was a terrible initiation. I began talking to my son about everyday things to keep him calm, but his voice became coarse and strained as his throat began to close.

Our entrance to the emergency room caused quite a stir and immediate questioning. “What did you feed him?” the nurse asked, “A half a pistachio which he spit out.” I replied. “Never do that again.” She quipped back. “Obviously!” I countered. The right medicine at the right time is a beautiful thing and my son recovered. Seven years later, I am still recovering. So why would I say that allergies can be a blessing?

So here’s the deal. Food allergies have been on the rise for years. According to F.A.R.E (Food Allergy Research and Education, foodallergy.org), “between 1997 and 2008, the prevalence of peanut or tree nut allergy appears to have more than tripled in U.S. children.” The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that the prevalence of food allergy in children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.

This dramatic rise in food allergies has woken us up from a long slumber during which food corporations have gotten away with questionable additives and inadequate food labeling for years. As food allergies are thrust into the mainstream of society, I see evidence of strong consumer power. Labeling laws requiring products to disclose all eight major allergens on the label and, most recently, gluten free labeling standards have all been demanded by consumers. Which begs the question, who is in charge of our bellies? We are, of course, and we wield great power when we put a product back on the shelf because it isn’t good or safe for us. This consumer power goes far beyond allergies and intolerances as it also applies to nutrition and personal health choices. If one person demands organic and buys it, the action goes unnoticed. If hundreds of thousands of people demand and buy organic, the food industry takes notice.

More than ever, because of food allergies and intolerances, people are demanding to know what is in their food. But shouldn’t we have wanted to know all along? Shouldn’t we have the right to know what is in our food? The satisfied belly is content, the disturbed belly asks questions. The act of being forced to read food labels, yes, every label that comes into our house, was a blessing. It changed the way our family eats, views food and, ultimately, changed our lifestyle – for the better! As more allergies and intolerances would reveal themselves over time to our family, through self-education, I rigorously prepared myself to handle the minefield placed in front of me.

Unfortunately, food allergies can develop at anytime in one’s lifetime and there is no cure for food allergies at this moment. Food allergy therapies are under study in clinical trials, but none has been proven yet for general use (foodallergy.org). If you or a loved one are affected by food allergies, I encourage you to educate yourself because they are real, they are life threatening and they aren’t going away anytime soon.

Did you know that “…approximately 20-25 percent of epinephrine administrations in schools involve individuals whose allergy was unknown at the time of the reaction?” and “Severe or fatal reactions can happen at any age, but teenagers and young adults with food allergies are at the highest risk of fatal food-induced anaphylaxis” (foodallergy.org). Food allergies invite us to ask questions and mange our bodies like our life depended on it but, again, shouldn’t we have been doing this all along?

Of course, I wish our family didn’t have food allergies and intolerances. But the experience has led my family to a greater understanding of food, the food industry, our bodies and our health. I myself would love to enjoy a crab feast as I did for the first 40 years of my life, or bite into a buttery croissant, but the reality is that I can’t. So instead, as a family, we decided a long time ago to focus on all the wonderful food that we can enjoy, making our world one of can instead of cannot. As they say, it’s best to make lemonade out of lemons unless, of course, you’re allergic to them.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering and Rootin’ Tootin’ No Gluten Foods. They have four children, of which all four are Gluten Intolerant. The family also lives with multiple food allergies including tree nut, peanut, fish and shellfish. Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

Recommended short videos (two minutes each) from foodallergy.org. Ironically, they can be accessed under “Food For Thought.”

“A Community that Cares.”

“A Day in the Life of a Food Allergy Mom.”

“Research on the Cutting Edge.”

“Media Misrepresentation.”

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