Ames, Iowa -- Food allergies afflict millions of people and the numbers are on the rise, especially in children. Parents, childcare providers, foodservice staff and others need to learn how to keep children with food allergies safe, says Sam Beattie, Iowa State University Extension food safety specialist.
The most common food allergies are tree nuts and peanuts, milk products, soy, fish and shellfish, wheat and eggs. These six categories account for about 90 percent of allergic reactions. Think about how many foods contain one or more of these common allergens and you will begin to understand the magnitude of this risk. Children are at an even greater risk because they may not understand the risks and consequences of their food allergy. Beattie said.
“Parents of children with a food allergy have a responsibility to teach the child how to ask about foods that they are about to consume and to refuse foods that they are uncertain about,” Beattie said. "Teach a child to ask before eating -- Is this safe for me?”
Preparing an action plan and sharing it with the school, childcare provider, family, coaches and other parents can help parents feel confident about leaving their child in the care of others. The action plan should include lists of food the child can eat and safe food choices, description of how the child reacts to food allergens, steps to take in case of a reaction and emergency contacts.
Beattie also recommends teaching the child about their allergy at an early age. “Give the child confidence in their ability to handle the allergy. Encourage asking about food and their allergy.”
As the child gets older, parents can teach kids how to read food labels to identify allergens. At about seven years old, Beattie suggests training the child how to use an epinephrine auto injector or epipen. Also, consider providing the child with a medical alert bracelet.
Keeping kids with food allergies safe requires a commitment at home, in class and after school. Teachers and childcare providers should speak with parents about the child’s food allergy and listen carefully to the details of preventing and handling a reaction.
“The best method to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid the food,” said Catherine Strohbehn, Iowa State University Extension specialist. When preparing allergen-free food, remember allergens can hide in sauces, soups, dressings and oils.
Also, keep kids from trading meals and snacks. Homemade snacks that are brought to school can hide allergens. Avoid this risk by providing the teacher with alternative safe treats for the child.
The foodservice industry is recognizing the risks of food allergens and is working towards training restaurant management and staff of proper protocols, including the appropriate questions to ask a guest who expresses a need for an allergen-free meal, said Strohbehn.
“There is increasing awareness by restaurant operators of allergen issues,” said Strohbehn. “Some restaurants have gluten free and other food allergen menus available so guest can be sure the menu items they order do not contain or have not had any cross contact with food allergens.”
Parents can keep a child with food allergies safe when eating out by communicating their needs to the restaurant. Call the restaurant ahead of time and talk with them about the allergen. Order allergen-free meals by telling the server about the allergy, asking about ingredients and food preparation and making sure the chef is aware of your needs. Ask the kitchen to start fresh with clean hands, gloves, workspace, utensils, pans and dishes to avoid cross contact.
Identifying the signs of an adverse food reaction and acting quickly is crucial. Symptoms of allergic reactions appear within seconds to hours and can include skin rash, trouble breathing and death.
“If a parent notices an unusual reaction after a food is introduced to the child, they should consider this a warning,” said Beattie. An indication of a reaction includes flushing of the skin, hives, lips swelling and upset stomach. Children may also say something such as “this food is too spicy”, “it feels like my tongue is hot”, “my mouth itches”, or “my lips feel tight”.
Iowa State University Extension has five new publications on food allergies for parents, childcare providers, restaurant staff and others. The publications are available as .pdf downloads at the Extension Online Store . All five publications are published in English and Spanish and are free to download.
In addition, ISU Extension is releasing a four-page training guide on food allergens for restaurant managersthat will be available soon. For more information on food allergies visit www.iowafoodsafety.org and www.foodallergy.rutgers.edu.
Catherine Strohbehn, Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management, (515) 294-3527, firstname.lastname@example.org