Food Allergy Awareness Increases in Mainstream

By: Michael Engle

Do you remember when, once upon a time, flight attendants would apologize for withholding the free bags of peanuts due to a flier's allergy?  Today, this concern is more prevalent than ever; however, establishments have become increasingly aware of food allergies, are better informed of their potential ramifications, and are more prepared for life-or-death scenarios.  In a recent article for The Wall Street Journal, Liz Rappaport documented how the awareness of common food allergies has become more commonplace throughout mainstream society.

One such important development is the better understanding, and associated distinctions, between food intolerances and allergies.  Allergies, which only affect about 4% of the world's adult population, are caused if one's immune system were to treat an offending food as an infection.  This, with the resulting anaphylactic shock, can be fatal; people with confirmed food allergies should carry an Epi-Pen at all times, in case of an emergency.  On the other hand, intolerances do not involve the immune system, though they might result in body rashes, hives, cramps, bloating, diarrhea, and/or gas.

Intolerances and allergies should be monitored, as each person's reactions to various foods will vary.  For some people, a small degree of cross-contamination may necessitate a trip to the emergency room, so if a loved one suffers from a severe allergy to peanuts, take great care not to dip the peanut butter knife into the jam jar!  On the other hand, certain intolerances can be relatively benign, as evidenced by certain people who may always order the veal marsala instead of the veal parmesan, because of an allergy to wheat.  In addition, certain food intolerances may manifest themselves more severely in some foods, as opposed to others.  For instance, mild wheat allergies may encourage one to avoid wheat bread, yet not be affected by Rice or Corn Chex, which are made in the same factory as Wheat Chex.

Despite these societal advances, some parents still have reservations about their local schools, and their children's safety, with respect to on-campus food.  For every child who is privately instructed never to purchase a school lunch, there may be an occasional classroom snack that may not be safe.  Occasionally, tragedy can ensue from an allergic accident, as evidenced by 13-year old Katelyn Carlson's death in December 2010, as she suffered an allergic reaction to a peanut ingredient in the Chinese food that her class ordered.  In addition, while some schools do not allow Epi-Pens outside of a locked compartment in the school nurse's office, there is some concern that that may be inadequate, since every second is crucial when responding to allergic reactions.

However, with increased emphasis on food safety, it is easier than ever to dine at restaurants with reduced concerns over allergies.  Even though a maa®tre d' may not be able to pull the peanuts out of a Snickers bar, s/he will always be able to identify particular dishes to avoid, and/or to communicate the vital information to the kitchen.

Photo:  Caitlin Covington

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