Tacos, lo mein, cereal

Navigating Childhood Food Allergies

By: Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

A mother I had as a client shared that her 5-year-old daughter was newly diagnosed as allergic to soy, tree nuts, peanuts, onions and wheat. Phew. The mom was utterly lost on what foods were left for her child to eat.

We can thank our lucky stars for the FDA Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. Since 2004, it has required that manufacturers explicitly state the presence of any major allergens on packaged goods. The eight major allergens are soy, wheat, milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish, and must be listed verbatim in the ingredients list and/or noted in an allergen statement on the label. This has helped millions of people feel safer about the foods they choose and eliminate some of the confusion surrounding food labels.

A quick physiology review: food allergies are the result of our bodies overreacting to harmless proteins in certain foods, thereby creating Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies and histamines. Symptoms can range from a pesky rash to a swollen throat to chest tightness or even fatality if left untreated. Food allergies, and their potential for cross-reactivity to similar food groups, is highly individualized. For your specific questions and blood tests, skin prick tests, oral food challenge tests and a trial elimination diet, consult your pediatrician, dietitian and allergist triad.

Tips for Avoiding the Top 8 Major Allergens:

  1. Soy: Soy is a staple in many plant-based diets, but so are many other beans. Cannellini and great northern beans are mild and lend well to sauces and soups, while black and pinto beans make a mighty fine addition to Taco Tuesday.
  2. Wheat: OK, this one’s a little tricky. Wheat appears in many foods as a primary ingredient, a thickener or even for added protein. But brown rice crackers, oatmeal, buckwheat flour, quinoa and gluten-free pastas all can be stand-ins at meals or snack time.
  3. Milk: Oh boy do we have options! Dairy alternatives are the fastest growing plant-based category, so this means anything from coconut yogurt to cashew cheese to almond milk to pea milk creamer.
  4. Egg: Eggs can bind, leaven, thicken and emulsify, so keep your eyes peeled for potential surprises in breads, pastas and all types of baked goods.
  5. Peanut: Peanut butter has such a presence, doesn’t it? From being adored as an inexpensive spread, to finding its way into the candy, cookie, granola bar, cereal or ice cream aisles, it’s hard to keep a lid on it (pun intended). Look for foods made from tree nuts or seeds instead.
  6. Tree nuts: Walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, coconut, etc., could spoil the fun if you find them in a favorite trail mix, dessert or breakfast cereal. It doesn’t work to just handpick out nuts, by the way. Check the label!
  7. Fish: Salmon, halibut and tuna are the most common fish allergens. Read labels on products designed for growing kids as fish oil and fish gelatin could be present in foods with added DHA/EPA for brain health.
  8. Shellfish: Crustaceans are usually a stand-alone food, but they could make their way into sauces, soups, seafood flavorings or fish stocks. Refer to the label before purchasing.

Allergen-Free, One-Day Meal Plan:

  • Breakfast: Toasted oat cereal with flax milk and a banana, and toasted brown rice-flour bread spread with hummus and hemp seeds
  • Lunch: Corn tortillas stuffed with salt-free canned black beans, salsa, guacamole and salt-free taco seasoning
  • Snack: Peanut-free ants on a log consisting of celery, sunflower butter and raisins
  • Dinner: Lentil pasta with broccoli, marinara sauce and nutritional yeast
  • Dessert: Raspberry sorbet with peaches

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