What you can do: If you’re hosting dinner, find out whether any of your guests have food allergies, and if they do, try one of our featured allergy-alert recipes.
The holidays should be a time to relax. But for someone with food allergies, completely letting your guard down during dinner or dessert—even for just one bite—could result in major discomfort, on in extreme cases, a trip to the emergency room. That’s no way to celebrate Turkey Day!
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Approximately 12 million Americans suffer from food allergies, but eight foods account for nearly 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions, according to The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). These include milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts (walnut, cashew, and such), fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.
While those are the more traditional food allergies, there are newer ones on the rise, too, including kiwi, sesame seed, and cilantro, explains Clifford W. Bassett, MD, a fellow of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, and assistant clinical professor of medicine at The Long Island College Hospital SUNY at Brooklyn. There’s no clear-cut, proven explanation for the rise in food allergies, but several theories exist. One is that we’re exposing infants and young children to high allergy and/or new foods at earlier ages. “Even something as simple as peanut or nuts maybe be present in various creams, lotions, and skin moisturizers, used in infants and young children,” says Dr. Bassett.
Another concern? We’re too clean freak-ish for our own good. “Oversanitizing the environment and keeping very young children away from pets, day care, and individuals with colds, for example, may result in a greater risk of allergies, according to the ‘hygiene hypothesis,'” Dr. Bassett explains.
Obviously, due to the Internet, individuals are being more educated about food allergy-related symptoms, diagnostic tests, and food allergy action plans prepared by food allergy savvy allergy specialists.
What it means
Common food allergies come in very many different colors and shapes, with reactions ranging from mild to life-threatening. For instance, some people develop oral allergy symptoms that include itchiness of the mouth and throat after ingestion of various foods such as fruits and veggies. On the other end of the spectrum, some people develop generalized or potentially life-threatening allergic-type reactions after exposure to even small quantities of food they are indeed sensitive to. That’s why it’s so important if you are invited to a holiday dinner to speak with your host prior to them preparing food for the meal, if you or a family member have food allergies. Consider bringing safe snacks and foods, especially when ingredient lists are not known. “The idea is to communicate, to be on the same playing field to avoid allergic reactions to foods, and these are preventable with proper planning and education. It is essential to have a prescribed epinephrine autoinjector with you at all times if you have a history of food allergies,” says Dr. Bassett.
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If you’re hosting a holiday dinner:
- Expand potluck to nonfood items. One way to keep food allergens off your menu is to be the only one who cooks. But guests often don’t like to show up empty-handed, so if you’re hosting a gathering and you or someone in the home has a food allergy, inform your guests, and suggest they bring a nonfood item, such as a board game or napkins, rather than food, if they insist on contributing to the festivities.
- Be an allergy-alert host. When preparing food for guests, get in the habit of hanging on to food labels. With the ingredient labels handy, guests with food allergies can scan them as needed, making sure there are no reaction-inducing ingredients.
- Beware of basting. According to ACAAI, people with common food allergies can be irritated by basting ingredients. A basted or self-basting turkey could include soy, wheat, or dairy components. When purchasing your turkey, look for one that’s minimally processed, and talk to the farmer or manufacturer if you’re still not sure. If someone with food allergies is at the table, the best choice is a turkey that’s minimally processed, containing just turkey and water before cooking.
If you or your child has a food allergy and are going away for Thanksgiving dinner:
Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat. Dr. Bassett’s advice is simple: “Be a label detective; ask questions.” If you’re eating at a relative’s home, ask the cook if you can see ingredient labels or recipes to make sure there’s no allergy-inducing foods on the menu. If you’re having your holiday dinner at a restaurant, it’s a good idea to make a “restaurant chef card” in advance, and then keep it in your wallet. Include your name and the foods you need to avoid, says Dr. Bassett. “Give it to the chef to make sure the sauces, etcetera, don’t contain food allergens. Call ahead to the restaurant during hectic holidays,” he suggests.
- Bring safe snacks. For a child is dealing with a nut allergy, consider making your own nut-free cookies and keeping them in a bag for him or her, so the child won’t feel left out when the others are raiding the dessert table.
- ID high-risk items. Sweets, breads, cakes, and cookies may contain peanuts, walnuts, or other nuts that you might not be able to spot on the surface. Nuts rank as one of the top three allergens in both children and adults. Egg and milk allergies are tops in young children, who often grow out of the allergies. Also on the rise are wheat allergies. If you have a wheat allergy, make sure products are gluten-free before indulging.
- Don’t overdo it in the alcohol department. “People dealing with a food allergic reaction to alcohol is not common,” explains Dr. Bassett. But in sensitive individuals, alcohol can be a co-factor for food allergic reactions in some cases.
- Be prepared. Make sure you always carry emergency medications just in case unrecognized food allergens are hiding in holiday treats. If you want to develop a customized game plan, meet with your allergist for individualized tips.