When the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology released the first nationwide study of food allergies in Canada back in 2010, it found that one in every 13 Canadians suffers from a significant food allergy.
But those allergies among Canadian adults and children have been on the rise, a trend that is echoed in the U.K., Australia and the United States.
A 1997 study conducted by New York's Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital found that one in 250 children had a peanut allergy. When they repeated the study in 2008, the number had risen to one in 70.
New York-based cookbook author Elizabeth Gordon was surprised when she went to see several doctors to deal with a persistent rash that appeared after the birth of her first child. After being advised she would have to stop nursing and start taking steroids, she made a last-ditch appointment with an allergist.
"At the time, I was eating omelettes every day for lunch and eating a lot of cookies while I was nursing. Lo and behold, I stopped eating those things and my rash was gone very, very quickly.”
As Gordon started developing her own recipes and writing cookbooks free of gluten, dairy, soy, nut and eggs, she also started hearing from parents who were thrilled to learn how to make treats for their kids that looked like everyone else’s.
The importance of that inclusion was what motivated her to create her first book, Allergy-Free Desserts.
“I was at a birthday party with my oldest daughter. There was a little girl who was allergic to peanuts," Gordon recalled.
"It just struck me as so sad: All the children were gathered around the table, eating this cake, and that child was over in a corner, alone, eating this thing that wasn’t even a cupcake that didn’t look very appetizing.”
It’s a scenario that’s familiar to Jodi Lee, a registered holistic nutritionist and professional home economist in Winnipeg.
“My daughter was diagnosed with a soy allergy when she was five months old, then I was diagnosed with celiac disease two years ago. And my daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease 10 days after that,” Lee said.
For Lee, the best way to deal with food allergies is to communicate clearly with school staff and other parents, and to always be prepared for anything.
“You’ve gotta give up the idea you can be spontaneous at anything. So I always had soy-free and gluten-free cupcakes and cookies in my freezer. I had three or four different colours of icing, so depending on the holiday that came up or the birthday party theme, you could have the right colour," she said.
Food is often used to celebrate and bring people together. But ironically, that tradition is also what can create distance between kids with food allergies and their peer group, said Lee.
“I find it’s very important for a child that if it’s a party that has a cupcake, you don’t send her with a cookie," she said. "She needs to be as similar to her friends as possible. There’s enough that sets her apart.”