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Holiday meals pose threat to those with food allergies


“Mom, these chocolate sprinkles have Red 5… Do they?. Yes! It says Red 5. Oh yeah, yellow, blue and red.”

Cody Allen, 6, of Prineville began having an extreme behavioral reaction to food coloring when he was 3.

“It’s almost like putting him on a high-powered drug, because his brain just stops functioning altogether,” his mother, Heather Allen, said recently.

Heather had not heard of anything like that before it happened to her son.

“He just gets glazed, and like, he hears you, but he doesn’t register anything,” she said.

After doing some research, she found that Red No. 40 dye is outlawed from food in Europe. That’s the coloring he is most affected by, and in the U.S., it seems as if it’s in everything.

When foods are labeled, Cody has an easier time knowing what he can eat or drink. If he is at a friend’s house, he has to do some investigation.

“I can take it apart and see inside of it, if it has red dye in it,” Cody said.

Heather said, “The holidays are really challenging especially because a lot of the family doesn’t, like, the older generation doesn’t quite understand that allergic reaction to things like that.”

Cody is far from alone.

Dr. Adam Williams, an allergy and asthma specialist at Bend Memorial Clinic, said there is someone with a food allergy or intolerance to basically every food on the planet.

As you might imagine, that makes the holiday season difficult for many families trying to prepare traditional meals. The classic Thanksgiving dinner could be potentially deadly to someone with an allergy to poultry, cinnamon or milk.

Some of the worst-case symptoms are facial and throat swelling, hives, vomiting and low blood pressure.

There is a distinction between an allergy and intolerance.

“Someone who has a milk allergy, for example, they could have an anaphylactic reaction to milk,” Williams said.

“And I have small children in my practice who are really anaphylactic allergic to milk, and they accidentally get it, often because it’s so hard to avoid,” he added. “Even trace amounts will cause this reaction. Someone who has lactose intolerance, their life is not in jeopardy. They’re never going to end up in the emergency room or need an EpiPen, but it doesn’t feel pleasant to have the symptoms.”

Williams said 95 percent of the cases he sees are food intolerances. Only 5 percent are allergies.

The “Big 8” food allergens — milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish — account for 95 percent of food allergies.

Some brands are changing their recipes to meet the needs of people with food allergies. Kraft recently took artificial colorings out of its famed macaroni and cheese, and now kids such as Cody can have one of their favorite foods again.

“I love mac and cheese!” Cody said.

If you’ve met someone with an uncommon allergy, such as melon or banana, you might be surprised to learn some fruit or vegetable allergies can disappear when the food is cooked.

“It just so happens that these fruit allergens are very easily destroyed by cooking,” Williams said. “Though the protein itself is just turned into a limp noodle, so to speak, and the immune system doesn’t recognize it any more, once something has been cooked.”

Sometimes, an allergy to a particular food can be based on how the food is grown. For example, pollen allergies can become food allergies.

One of the most unique food allergies Williams has seen is called food-and-exercise-Induced anaphylaxis. He said these cases occur mostly with teenagers and young adults.

“So they eat the food, no problem — nothing happens. They exercise and nothing happens,” he said. “But if they eat the food and then exercise within six hours, they can have a severe allergic reaction from the combination of the two.”

Wheat is the most common food for that type of severe allergic reaction.

Even though there is no cure for food allergies, there is hope.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the incidence of food allergies, absolutely,” Williams said. “And so I think that’s one of the big questions is, if we can answer, ‘Why the increase?’ ‘Why food allergies are on the rise?’ Then we may be able to start to unwind what the causes are. But it’s challenging.”

Williams also said delaying foods until a later age, problems with the intestinal tolerance mechanism, bacterial diversity, genetics and the environment all appear to be contributing factors to food allergies.

For now, Cody will have to adjust his menu to cope with his food restrictions. And he does not seem to mind.

His teacher keeps special treats to meet his needs, and to the question what is your favorite color, he replied, “Every color is my favorite color.”

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