In This House We Have Strict Rules So Our Daughter Doesn’t Die
By Janice Quirt
Photo © doutorfotografo/Twenty20
Jun 25, 2019
I thought I knew a thing or two about food allergies, but I didn't know enough.
At least, not until I joined households with my partner, whose daughter has anaphylactic allergies to tree nuts and sesame seeds.
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Prior to this relationship, I had worked in the consumer packaged goods industry for a few years, and had learned a lot about food allergies, labeling guidelines and production lines (where allergens had been processed). I had worked on communications and key messages about allergens, and heard from many customers about allergies. All that was excellent theoretical knowledge. But when I moved in with my partner, all that experience was nothing compared to the realities of living with a child — then a newly minted teenager — with life-threatening food allergies.
Here are some of the things I learned very quickly, with the goal of keeping my partner’s daughter alive.
Labels and Packages Protect Her
Allergens need to be labeled, so if you see me grocery shopping, you’ll notice I read the ingredients for everything I buy, every time. That’s because products can contain the allergens that can kill my stepdaughter. We also scrutinize the label for the “may contain” statement. This means that the product was produced in a facility that also houses allergens, or perhaps the ingredients came from another source and the manufacturer can’t guarantee that they haven’t been in contact with an allergen. Some people with allergies eat products with the “may contain” statement, but our rule is that we avoid them — absolutely. It’s not worth the risk. And we need to read the labels every time, because ingredients and sources can change. The one time I didn’t check — for the millionth time — that the frozen shrimp I bought were “safe” was the time that something had changed and they sported a “may contain sesame seeds” statement.
For that same reason, I can’t provide extended family members with a list of safe brands because products and allergens can change and we just have to read the label every single time.
As well, although I’m an ardent environmentalist, packaging provides safety for consumers with allergies, safeguarding the contents inside from cross-contamination. So for my stepdaughter, we need to consume homemade or packaged goods. She can’t run the risk of eating products from a bulk food store or a fast food coffee shop — both scary places, what with their sesame seeds or nut products nestled among all the other food offerings. Wrappers may kill the planet, but they could save my stepdaughter’s life.
An Allergen Ban Is Necessary
You won’t find sesame seeds, almond butter or cashew cheese in our household, no matter how healthy or delicious. Ditto for hummus or Nutella. Sesame seeds and tree nuts are ticking time bombs for my stepdaughter, and even if she doesn’t consume them — and we do — there is too great a risk that our actions will lead to her ingesting some and having an anaphylactic reaction. There's no almond milk in our blender, because we could never be 100 per cent confident in removing any deadly residue. There are no sesame seed bagels in the toaster, because those little suckers are sneaky and sticky and could easily end up on her food.
The most risk we have ever tolerated was buying chocolate covered almonds when she was away. We trusted that the thick layer of chocolate encased the allergen, but still scrubbed like surgeons prepping for the O.R. after eating.
And these rules apply to our guests, as well. My stepdaughter is particularly sensitive to cashews, so I’ve had to ask my mom to leave her stash behind when she stays. Following a squash team tournament that offered up cashews as a snack, my partner had to ask his entire team to wash up before piling into his car for the drive home. It might seem overly cautious, but five people had cashew oil all over their hands and were going to be in contact with every part of a car that she travels in. It was just too risky.
No Double Dipping
Double dipping isn’t just a social faux pas, it can be deadly for those with allergies. Finding bread that doesn’t possibly contain sesame seeds is a challenge, so we do have some products that are “may contain sesame." We have a four-slot toaster: two slots for my stepdaughter and two slots for the rest of the family. And when it comes time to butter the toast, there is no double dipping the knife that’s been in contact with the “may contain sesame” bread.
It's not easy, but we’ve learned to use separate bowls for dipping and spreading, and stick to our separate toaster slots. And we wash a lot of knives. It takes an extra few seconds and could save her life.
Potlucks Have Pitfalls
At a recent family gathering, I messed up. It was potluck style, and everyone was bringing a dish. I asked my sister to bring her famous quinoa salad. In the hubbub, I didn’t notice her preparing the salad dressing in the kitchen, but thankfully my mother did — because it contained lashings of sesame oil. I had no idea and I was the one who had specifically requested this dish! Once we were all aware, we hustled that quinoa salad out of the house. It would have been too risky to have numerous plates and serving spoons coated in this allergen lying around while my stepdaughter was consuming food. My bad. Like any parent with kids who have food allergies, I’m still learning.
“Just this Once” is a Non-Starter
No, my stepdaughter cannot have a Timbit “just this once.” Nor can she try “just a bite” of ice cream cake. She’ll never know what Nutella tastes like, nor enjoy a bagel fresh from the wood-fired oven in Montreal. Even if some of those items — Timbits and ice cream cake, for example — do not contain allergens, they certainly are at risk for having trace amounts of them. And no mouthful of ice cream cake is worth ending up in the hospital with a potentially lethal allergic reaction.
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Remind and Request Often
We’re overjoyed to host people for parties. And so thankful when invited over to dine. But with these social occasions come numerous questions and requests about ingredients, labels and whether something has come into contact with an allergen. We don’t do it to be picky — we’re doing it to protect our daughter and stepdaughter in any way that we can. We appreciate it when you meet our requests with warmth and empathy, rather than highlighting all the things she can’t have.
We know it’s not easy, but we can promise you that it is infinitely harder to be the one with the serious food allergy.
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