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Food at the Holidays: Be Careful What You Eat


According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control, the number of children with food allergies increased by 50% from 1997-2011. Food allergies affect 4-6% of children in the U.S.; up to 15 million Americans in total have food allergies. Every three minutes, someone visits the Emergency Department for a food allergy reaction, resulting in over 200,000 ED visits a year for food allergies.

Eight food groups account for 90% of serious allergic reactions in the U.S.: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts. One of the most common food allergies among children is a peanut allergy, which has risen from .4% of children in 1997 to 1.4% of children in 2010. Many children allergic to peanuts are also allergic to tree nuts such as walnuts, pecans or almonds. Because all of these nuts are so ubiquitous in our foods, the prevalence of allergies creates a huge risk to children. In fact, current estimates are that one in five Americans have an allergic condition, making the risk one shared by the entire population.


While no one cause has been definitively identified, some theories have emerged as to why food allergies have increased so dramatically in the last fifteen years. One theory, the "hygiene hypothesis," links our excessive cleanliness to the emergence of allergies. In our Western vaccinated, anti-bacterial, pasteurized, and antibiotic filled societies, our immune systems no longer fight infectious diseases as much, so they fight things they should not--such as the environment and foods--and produce allergies.

Another theory for why food allergies have increased is the delayed introduction of foods with high allergy potential. For awhile, the sharp increase in peanut allergy led to parents delaying or eliminating peanuts from their children's diet. However, waiting to introduce potential allergens such as peanuts and cow's milk did not stop the increase in allergies to these foods.

A third explanation for the rise in food allergies is that increased awareness has led to increased reporting and therefore a more accurate picture of people's sensitivity to foods.


There is no cure for food allergies, and some reactions can be life-threatening. The best plan is to identify and avoid trigger foods, but that is not so easy when allergens can be hidden ingredients in many foods--e.g. peanut oil is used in many baked goods, as well as many Asian foods. That is why carrying an EpiPen, which is an auto-injector of epinephrine used to treat anaphylaxis, is so essential. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction, and using an EpiPen can reverse the reaction. It is the best way to be safe if you have a food allergy. Wearing a medic alert bracelet or necklace is also a great idea if you have a food allergy, since it notifies those around you and medical professionals of your condition. Keeping Benedryl, an over the counter antihistamine, in your medicine cabinet is a good idea since it can sometimes blunt the effect of a reaction or buy some time until emergency treatment is provided.


With the holidays approaching, keeping loved ones safe from food allergens can be especially tricky. With so many holiday treats and meals being gifted and eaten out, it is difficult to keep track of what ingredients food contains, how it is prepared, and how it is served (think toppings). If you have a loved one who has a food allergy, it may be best to host holiday meals at home where you can control what and how the food is served. Sticking to whole, unprocessed foods offers less chance that a food allergen will be introduced. Cooking at home also affords the opportunity to substitute traditional recipe ingredients with allergen-free ingredients: sunflower butter for peanut butter, non-dairy for milk, and gluten-free for wheat. Also, food preparation at home allows you to read all ingredient labels carefully--even those of products you have used before, since they can change periodically.

If hosting holidays at home is not an option, offer to help the host plan and prepare the festivities where they are being held, thereby making sure there are at least a few allergen-free dishes available. If helping in the planning and preparation is not possible, then BYOF: bring your own food. Bring allergen-free dishes and snacks that your loved one can eat, and bring enough to share. If your holiday plans are to eat at a restaurant, be sure to communicate to your server--and the kitchen--your family member's needs, and bring some snacks just in case those needs cannot be accommodated.


If you or a loved one has suffered a food allergy reaction due to mislabeling, lack of warning, mishandling of food/cross-contamination, or other causes, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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Thomas Law Firm
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