The truth about child food allergies, on

Every playgroup has one: the mom who inspects every last morsel of little Timmy’s lunch because he has “allergies.” Red dye makes him so restless, mom says, and sugar gives him gas. Oh, and he couldn’t possibly have grapes! Do you know how many pesticides are on grapes? Good thing she packed her homegrown-tomato-and-amaranth paste and double-reverse-osmosis-filtered water.We just roll our eyes, dismiss her concerns and, maybe, slip Timmy a lollipop on the sly, because it’s obvious the food issues belong to his mom. Or we simply stop inviting hyper food mom’s kid to the group. Or hyper food mom stops coming because she feels invalidated. Or because she’s afraid our kids will breathe on her kid with their poisonous goldfish-cracker breath.

Hyper food mom, with her litanies about allergies and sensitivities and intolerances, seems harmless enough. But what happens when a child’s food issues aren’t a matter of discomfort or paranoia? Hyper food mom pollutes the discussion of true food allergies and makes other adults less likely to lend credence to the needs of kids with genuine food allergies, a very real new epidemic.

Roughly 2.2 million kids in the U.S. have a life-threatening food allergy, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Eight common foods – peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, dairy, fish, shellfish, dairy and soy – trigger 90% of these reactions. A mere molecule of the offending protein is enough to send an allergic kid into anaphylactic shock, which can result in death.

When my first kid was diagnosed with the digestive disorder Celiac Disease, I became hyper food mom. I snapped at a friend who started to stir my kid’s pot of gluten-free pasta with the same spoon she used to stir the regular stuff. For the first few weeks after my daughter’s diagnosis, I have no doubt that there was some serious eye-rolling. Eventually, I got some perspective. Celiac Disease, while it requires a certain amount of dietary vigilance, isn’t life-threatening.

True food allergies, on the other hand, are. And yet, they’re often confused with food intolerances. Take dairy. A lactose intolerance is when the digestive system is unable to break down large amounts of milk sugar, or lactose; it’s caused by a shortage of the enzyme lactase. Gastric complaints like extreme gas, bloating and diarrhea are common. A dairy allergy, on the other hand, is based in the immune system, which treats the foreign proteins like attacking Huns and starts shutting down the body’s systems (like the respiratory or circulatory) in order to contain the uprising. Once this cascading reaction occurs, it can be extremely difficult to stop. Injectable epinephrine – either in an EpiPen(TM) or a Twinject (TM) – can stabilize someone long enough to get him to a hospital.

In short, intolerances can be remarkably unpleasant. Allergies can be deadly.

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