How to Eat Around Allergies

By Cheryl Sternman Rule, "How to Eat Around Allergies," September/October 2007

Cooking for people with food allergies and special diets.

According to Annie Khuntia, M.D., clinical associate of allergy and immunology at the University of Chicago, two main tests can help determine the presence of a food allergy. One involves putting a small amount of the suspected allergen underneath the skin and looking for a raised bump, or wheal. “This method provides quick, easy results within 15 or 20 minutes,” Dr. Khuntia says. Another, the RAST blood test, “gives you a quantitative number to follow over time.” (Both tests have high rates of false positives, so follow-up testing is sometimes necessary.) Once allergies are identified and foods are eliminated, patients may need advice on maintaining proper nutrition. It’s unwise to self-diagnose and avoid foods haphazardly, since you risk depriving your body of important nutrients.

Avoiding known triggers is the only surefire way to prevent reactions—which can be life-threatening, particularly with peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish. So people with allergies must be on high alert at all times, fastidiously reading labels and avoiding cross-contamination. Even trace amounts of peanut protein lingering on a utensil can cause trouble for someone with a peanut allergy.

Fortunately, in the last couple of years, living with food allergies has become a little easier. Thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), which took effect in January 2006, reading food labels is no longer an exercise in deciphering secret code. For example, before the law passed, those allergic to eggs had to memorize a laundry list of terms (e.g., albumin) that implied “egg inside.” Now that food manufacturers must disclose in plain language the top eight allergens, those same people can look for a single word: “egg.”

Also, the number of allergy-friendly products has grown surprisingly large. In fact, a 2007 report from Chicago-based market research firm Mintel shows that the number of new dairy-free products more than tripled between 2005 and 2006 due to an increased awareness of dairy allergies.

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