Food allergy an unwelcome Thanksgiving guest
Hosts must adapt as adverse reaction becomes common
Though Thanksgiving dinner is easily the most anticipated meal of the year, millions of American families will proceed to the dinner table this Thursday with caution — including the first family.
Even as his administration is taking new steps to deal with a surge in reported allergies and asthma among American children, President Obama revealed last week that there will be no peanut-based stuffing recipes on the White House Thanksgiving menu — daughter Malia, 15, is allergic to peanuts, an increasingly common food allergy among young Americans.
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that 15 million Americans have food allergies, and with food allergies among American children rising approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, dietary considerations have taken a new prominence on Turkey Day, forcing cooks to substitute, get creative, and scrub their menus of potentially lethal intruders.
Just in time for Thanksgiving, Mr. Obama last week signed a law making epinephrine more available in schools for children with allergies and asthma. The law was co-sponsored by House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, whose 11-year-old granddaughter has a severe peanut allergy.
“The rise of food allergies in the past 10 to 15 years has been alarming,” said Matthew Greenhawt, a professor in the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the University of Michigan.
“We don’t have an answer as to why so many have food allergy, and what has caused this epidemic of new cases, but when you stop to think about it, it really dominates a large part of our lives — what we send or serve for lunch at school, what we give out for celebrations at school or during the holidays, what we serve as snacks on airlines or sporting events, and where we go out to eat or take our families on vacation,” he added. “This is the new reality, and it was something that I certainly did not have to confront when I was a child.”
It is estimated that a person goes to an emergency room due to a food allergy reaction every three seconds. Close to 150 Americans die each year from food allergies, and 80 percent of those deaths are related to peanuts.
The rising problem translates into big business.
The Associated Press reported this week that sales of organic packaged foods rose 24 percent to $11.48 billion over the past five years, citing market researcher Euromonitor International. Gluten-free packaged foods, made for those who are sensitive to wheat, more than doubled to $419.8 million. And the broader market of packaged foods targeted to people with food intolerances to things like wheat, dairy or sugar rose 12 percent to $2.89 billion.
Tofurky, the tofu-based turkey alternative, has gone from the joke punchline it was when it was first introduced in the Pacific Northwest in 1995 to a respectable alternative to the traditional Turkey Day centerpiece. Tofurky President Seth Tibbott told AP his company expects to sell 350,000 of the stuffed-meatlike tofu loaves this holiday season.
Often referred to as “the Big Eight,” the most common food allergies in the U.S. are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Manufacturers of packaged food, whether imported or domestic, are required to list if the product contains one of the top eight allergens.
Milk allergies are very common among children, but not common at all among adults. An estimated 2.5 percent of American children have some sort of milk allergy, and an estimated 80 percent of those children will outgrow their allergy by the time they are 7 years old.
Conversely, the most common food allergy for adults is shellfish. Two percent of adults in America have a shellfish allergy, while just 0.1 percent of children have the allergy.
Peanut allergies often have the most severe reactions.
For Thanksgiving cooks, Mr. Greenhawt believes that familiarizing oneself with ingredients in a meal is the most important action a food allergic individual or their cook can take.
“As a provider, I try very hard to educate our patients and their families about these risks,” he said. “Every label must be carefully read, and when eating outside of the home, the ingredients for each dish the food allergic individual may eat has to be carefully screened.”
He also points out the importance of making sure cooking and preparations surfaces are void of cross-contamination.
Preparing a dinner that is conscious of the “Big Eight” allergens can be difficult, but allergy-friendly recipes are available.
The photo-sharing and instructional website Pinterest is filled with “Thanksgiving friendly” recipes.
“The worst part of having a food allergy, for some, is the lack of inclusion in celebrations, said Mr. Greenhawt.
Still, with a dose of caution and a teaspoon of creativity, individuals with food allergies can enjoy a holiday dinner that they’re guaranteed to be thankful for.
President Obama responds to Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, in the Oval Office on Nov. 13 after signing a bill to encourage schools to stockpile epinephrine. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (right) has a granddaughter who is allergic to peanuts.