Managing Food Allergies: The Basics

in Food Allergy, Newly Diagnosed
Published: September 10, 2010

Finding out that you or your child has a serious food allergy can feel overwhelming. In the first appointment, a parent may hear the allergist say the term “life-threatening” and not much else – other than to fill the prescription for the child’s new constant companion, the auto-injector.

It is usually only post-appointment, and on your own, that you begin to think through the ramifications of “avoiding that allergen” and that an allergenic food might turn up unexpectedly in the ingredients of packaged foods, or deep fryers, or personal care products. And what about school? Will my allergic child feel safe among all the allergen-eaters and the many sets of grubby little hands?

Suddenly the allergist’s pronouncement to “avoid all traces of the allergen” feels like the weight of the world. At Allergic Living, many of us have food allergies too, and we know the anxieties, especially at first. But like the many allergy experts and health journalists who contribute to our magazine, we also know this to be a fact: food allergies are manageable.

You have to be smart about it and organized, since a life with food allergies means planning because, well, we eat every day of our lives. As families or individuals living with allergies, what we don’t get to be is as spontaneous as others. But we can live safely, fully and well.

Get Organized

Managing your allergies starts with organization. If you have an allergy, avoidance of your trigger becomes second nature. You’ll become the person who always has the treat and auto-injector in her bag, not to mention wipes and a cell phone with 911 on speed dial.

There is a learning curve before you can start to feel comfortable with the new dietary restrictions and anaphylaxis precautions, and that takes time.

Importance of hygiene: The first step to managing a food allergy involves basic hygiene. Wash your hands – a lot. Residues from foods you are allergic to (for instance nuts) can be transferred from one person’s hands onto surfaces like bus or subway poles, and then onto your hands. This won’t be a problem as long as you always wash your hands before eating or touching your mouth, nose or utensils.

Warm, soapy water is the best way to wash your hands but hand sanitizer is better than nothing. Baby wipes are also a good idea and it is more likely that the proteins can transfer to the disposable wipe. They can also be used to clean tables and chairs which is especially useful during travel (e.g. airplane).

Cross-Contamination: The second step involves learning and teaching others about cross-contamination. Also called cross-contact, this occurs when a food that you are allergic to comes in contact with something that you were going to eat. The allergen contamination may happen directly or may occur indirectly through shared use of utensils.

For an example of the latter, say there are two soups on the stove, one with cream and one that is safe for a dairy allergic individual. It’s essential to make sure that the same spoon isn’t used to stir both soups. It will be important to educate friends and relatives about cross-contamination when you go to their homes.

Grocery Shopping: Buying packaged food at the grocery store can be particularly challenging, especially at first. That’s because you’ll need to get used to reading the label on everything you buy, and often more than once. This includes foods like crackers, breads, cookies, sauces, ice cream, candies and chocolate. Be sure to read the ingredient list, as well as any precautionary statements (ie: This product may contain peanuts).

When you’re reading the ingredient list, look for a direct mention of the food you’re avoiding (ie: soy) and any hidden words or names. For example, the word casein is sometimes used instead of milk, and an allergen like mustard may be hidden in the word “spices”.

In Canada, new regulations became law in 2012 that require manufacturers to list priority allergens in plain language, and list ingredients of ingredients if they contain a priority allergen. For example, if the starch in a cracker is derived from wheat, this would have to be indicated.

In the United States, labeling rules have been in place since 2006 that require manufacturers to use plain language when listing priority allergens, and to declare all priority allergens. (Note that priority allergens in the U.S. do not include sesame and mustard, as they do in Canada.)

Keep in mind that an easier, safer option is often to prepare food from scratch. Shop for meats, fruits and vegetables that are safe for you to eat and create delicious snacks and meals at home. That way, you’ll know for certain what’s in your food.

In Allergic’s recipe section we have plenty of appetizing recipes free from top allergens.

Next: Eating Out, Being Your Own Advocate