Food Allergy Awareness

Food allergies are on the rise.  And they can suddenly strike at any age, with symptoms ranging from mild to deadly.  So how does this concern cruisers?

Cruisers are the most social group I know.  Pot lucks, happy hours and just sharing treats on the beach are a way of life:  once we didn’t eat dinner alone for 17 straight evenings . . . and on the 18th, we were invited to another boat for dessert!

But potlucks are scary for those with food allergies.  And they’re even scarier if the nearest emergency room is more than an hour away.

With food allergies on the rise, here's a simple way to help those affected know what's in the food you cookIn 2007, as we were cruising the Sea of Cortez, Dave had a couple of episodes where his lip and/or tongue would swell for an unknown reason but that his doctor suspected was a food or drug allergy.  Shortly later, on a trip back to the US, a more severe episode landed Dave in the ER as swallowing — but not breathing — was compromised.  As we worked with an allergist to find the cause (he had a delayed reaction, making the diagnosis more difficult), he landed in the ER twice more, now with breathing problems.  I can’t begin to tell you how scary it is.

When we finally got the diagnosis — a milk allergy that developed when he was 68 years old — I became a fanatic about knowing what was in everything he ate.  (The good news is that with the allergist’s help and paying close attention to ingredients, Dave hasn’t had a major episode in over 2 years.)

Cooking at home was easy:  I’ve always cooked mostly from scratch, making it simple to know exactly what ingredients are in a dish.

But eating something that a friend prepared was trickier:  they’d often forget an ingredient or use a prepared sauce that I didn’t know what all was in.  But for someone like Dave with an anaphylactic food allergy (those that cause the throat to swell, cutting off the airway — most people are familiar with this reaction to a bee sting but it can occur with any allergy), the basic rule is simple:  if you don’t know the ingredients are safe, don’t eat it.

And that brings us back to cruising and pot lucks.  No one is sure exactly why food allergies are increasing, but they are.  And, like Dave, they’re occurring not only in kids, but in people of all ages.  Estimates range from 1 in 15 people to 1 in 25 — meaning it’s very likely that at least one person at a cruiser get-together will have a food allergy.  And it’s a pain — and Dave finds it embarrassing to call attention to himself — to have to ask what’s in every dish.

With food allergies on the rise, here's a simple way to help those affected know what's in the food you cookSo how about making it a little easier for those with food allergies? Instead of them having to ask if any X is in your dish, and you having to try to remember all the ingredients, why not make a little card listing what’s in it?  You can see the one I made recently for a pan of brownies in the photo at right.  It would have been even better if I’d added my name, so if someone had a question, they’d know who to ask.

You can do it either one of two ways:  list all ingredients, or note the presence or absence or the eight most common allergens:

  1. Milk/Dairy Products, including cheese, yogurt, butter, margarine, and cream.  Breads often contain milk products.  Watch out for flavored chips – ranch, nacho, cheese, and other flavorings almost always contain milk proteins.   Many sauces, particularly packaged spaghetti sauce, contain cheese or other milk solids.  A lot of processed meats (sausages, lunch meats) contain milk products.  Many box mixes (cakes, bread mix, biscuit mix) contain powdered milk. Plain mayonnaise does not contain milk, contrary to what most people think.
  2. Eggs – in addition to the obvious, eggs are a major ingredient of mayonnaise and Miracle Whip.  They’re also in almost all baked goods, including bread, cakes, cookies, and often crackers.
  3. Peanuts – those who are allergic to peanuts often cannot be anywhere near peanuts or any dishes containing peanut butter or peanut oil.  This is considered to be the most severe food allergy in general.
  4. Tree nuts such as almonds, cashews or walnuts.
  5. Fish – if a dish contains fish, it’s usually pretty obvious!
  6. Shellfish – including such things as clam juice (watch out for Bloody Marys made with Clamato juice!)
  7. Soy – including soy sauce.  Many crackers and processed meats contain soy, as do most margarines.
  8. Wheat – notably, anything with flour, even if it’s just a bit for thickening or coating.  More and more people are also developing an intolerance or allergy to gluten, which is contained in wheat.
And please, don’t be offended if someone won’t eat “even just a taste” of that special dish you prepared, or if they bring their own food, or if they turn down an invitation to check out a new restaurant.  Depending on how severe someone’s food allergy is, and how close medical help is, it just may not be worth the risk.

  • Paige
    Posted at 15 July 2011 Reply

    Thank you for writing about a real problem for lots of people. I have gluten intolerance (Celiac disease) and I often find people telling me that just a little won’t do any harm, that’s simply not true. For those readers who know someone with Celiac disease, sufferers need to avoaid wheat, rye and barley. Most people also avoid oats because of the risk that one of the causitive grains may have been grown in the field in the recent past with self sown plants contaminating the oats.
    I often (mainly) invite people to my boat so that I can be sure of what’s gone into the cooking. I love Carolyn’s idea about writing a label, I’ll start doing that from today.

    Fair winds


  • Chuck Burns on Facebook
    Posted at 14 December 2011 Reply

    thanks from a sailor with Celiac disease (gluten)

  • Candy Ann Williams on Facebook
    Posted at 13 May 2012 Reply

    Great tip!

  • Susan Leaf
    Posted at 13 November 2012 Reply

    I know what you are talking about. My husband, Elden, is allergic to peanuts in every form, so I especially have to watch when we eat out. At least I am able to eat peanut butter nearby without it affecting him.

  • Kelly Lerigny
    Posted at 13 November 2012 Reply

    I am also Celiac (no gluten) and find pot lucks nearly impossible. Gluten is not just in flour products but also in things like soy sauce (there is usually more wheat than soybeans), malt products made from barley so Worcestershire sauce is often out, hamburger patties, wieners and even veggie burgers. I like the labelling but imagine that folks who don’t have some kind of sensitivity themselves won’t go to the trouble. I would be happy if people just put their names on their dishes so I could discreetly ask them and that sure would make it easier to get people’s dishes back to the right boat at the end of the day:).

  • Alex Miller on Facebook
    Posted at 13 November 2012 Reply

    Thank you! My daughter has a milk allergy (not lactose intolerance, alctual allergy so just lactose free subs don’t help). She went to a Thanksgiving dinner last year, and could only have cranberry sauce and turkey.

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 13 November 2012 Reply

    Another reader just posted on the article — if nothing else, put your name on your dish, so that if someone needs to ask about ingredients they know who to ask!

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 13 November 2012 Reply

    Alex — understand perfectly! Dave also has a true milk allergy . . . that didn’t develop until he was 68! The good news is that friends are learning and many make sure to have plenty he can eat. Although you always wonder if there’s something “hidden”!

  • Monika
    Posted at 12 November 2014 Reply

    Good advice. But after dealing with these issues for 15 years sadly we still rarely eat anything shared in a pot luck. Too often the cook forgets about an ingredient they used that we are allergic to, usually after we have had a bite or two. Never anywhere without a couple epipens at the ready.

  • Dave Skolnick
    Posted at 08 May 2016 Reply

    Carolyn leaves out an important problem. Fussy eaters who claim allergies and other medical conditions make life MORE difficult for those with truly diagnosed conditions. The boy who cried wolf is a good analogy. Followers of idiots (<- personal opinion) like Food Babe Vani Hari are an example. I have seen someone make a big deal of a "dairy allergy" in a restaurant only to order cheese cake for dessert! On a recent delivery I had two crew on gluten free diets (no diagnosis, just preference) and one that wouldn't eat a list of things. *sigh* I am not your mother, and my mother wouldn't make separate meals for everyone at the table. I have friends with real diagnosed Celiac. I understand the issues. Similarly I have great empathy for those with real allergies (oak trees won't kill me but some days I wish they would). I have little sympathy for fads and self-diagnosed "conditions." I'm going to have to put together a food questionnaire for crew candidates. Anything I put in front of you that isn't flagged in the questionnaire you eat or you don't eat. Rant over. You may now return to your previously scheduled programming.

  • Paul Daniela Herlihy
    Posted at 08 May 2016 Reply

    BYOF&D… Problem solved. Keep eggplant at bay.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 09 May 2016 Reply

      We do that to a large extent, but it really limits the socializing. And then answering the questions about why you’re not socializing in general or why you brought your own, etc.

  • Jane Beaston
    Posted at 09 May 2016 Reply

    I imagine you keep an EPI pen on board now and in the ditch kit

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 09 May 2016 Reply

      Yes, and steroids in addition and other meds as well. But the first — and biggest — line of defense is avoidance, which we manage with the help of others around us.

  • Dan N Jaye
    Posted at 09 May 2016 Reply

    Agree with Dave Dave Skolnick and try to always distinguish between our allergy to shellfish ( as in, carry an epipen) and our preference for vegetarian (as in, this is how I prefer to live my life, I’ll miss one meal if there’s nothing veggie available but by the second meal if there’s still nothing I’ll compromise.)

  • Rick Garvin
    Posted at 09 May 2016 Reply

    Water fruit (watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumber, eggplant, etc.) and banana allergy here. People get funny when you avoid certain foods. They take it personally. Labeling lets us eat foods without having to ask about ingredients. But, raw vegan crew in the Virgins? BYOF!

  • Red Canoe
    Posted at 09 May 2016 Reply

    I claim allergy as I have autoimmune and it’s easier for me than trying to explain why I can’t eat something. Walk in one’s shoes…and let me tell you how much people get offended when you don’t eat their food…i’m not that weirdo…ok i’m a little wierd lol

  • Kathy Pease
    Posted at 09 May 2016 Reply

    If people have food lifestyle preferences, they should accommodate themselves by bringing/eating their own food, and not expect others to deal with it. Some people with allergies and with lifestyle preferences do go off the deep end. My kid eating peanut butter at the same table as your peanut-allergic kid won’t harm your kid unless he eats the peanut butter too. (Smelling it isn’t harmful – no enzymes in the smell.) I prefer a gluten-free diet as I believe it’s healthier for me. I have friends who avoid milk, eat only raw food, are various degrees of vegetarian. If I am entertaining them, and I know what they’ll eat, I accommodate them. But at a potluck I expect them all to fend for themselves.

    • Kat
      Posted at 06 December 2016 Reply

      I am very sorry to tell you but you are definitely wrong about the peanut allergy. Just smelling peanut butter can kill someone who is highly allergic to it. 25 years ago my doctor warned me about staying away from the shellfish, he said my allergy was so severe I might start having a reaction just breathing the fumes. I thought he was crazy. Last year my sister-in-law developed an allergy to shellfish, shortly after they went to a restaurant with an outside patio on the water (where they sat). Before they even placed an order she ended up having an allergic reaction that ended up with her being rushed by ambulance to a hospital (they saved her). She had reacted by just breathing the fumes from the shellfish being cooked inside the restaurant. A family preschooler is extremely allergic to peanuts. His mother once ate something with peanut butter in it and hours later kissed him, he had a severe peanut reaction. As with many food reactions each time you have it, you tend to become more sensitive to that food. Children often have peanut butter or some other food a different child is allergic to, get it on their hands or clothes, in turn it gets on the table or chairs and can easily be passed to the allergic child. You think you are being inconveniened by another person’s allergy, but that person can die very easily, and having 2 epi pens on them doesn’t always save their life.

  • Diane Ericsson
    Posted at 09 May 2016 Reply

    I try to bring pot luck foods that have a simple, short list of ingredients. Also, I put food on a paper plate and write the ingredients around the perimeter with a sharpie. Or I use blue tape & sharpie on a reusable container. For store bought or complicated recipes-If it has known allergens I’ll just write those down. Doesn’t look pretty, but people do appreciate it.

  • Ann
    Posted at 09 May 2016 Reply

    My daughter has a dairy allergy (as with Dave, all dairy including whey and milk derivatives) and she’s really REALLY careful. When in doubt, she doesn’t have it even if the restaurant says it’s OK. Fortunately hers isn’t anaphylaxis but it’s digestive and violent digestive with just a lick of anything with dairy and within minutes. So needless to say, she has a good motivation to be careful!! When she is going somewhere that it’s pot luck, she just brings what she knows she can have and then she will ask those who brought foods what is in it. She’s also careful to mention the other forms of dairy she can’t have (milk, cream, butter, margarine, whey, etc) and she will often ask to see the packaging of questionable things. We know Pepperidge Farm bread is not OK for her but the store brand equivalent is fine….for now. The stuffing mix I get is sometimes OK and sometimes not which is weird. I check packages EVERY time I purchase them.

  • Jessica Heinicke
    Posted at 09 May 2016 Reply

    In the ER we give a cocktail of epi-pen, ranitidine, and benadryl for anaphylactic allergies. Anyone with a history of anaphylaxis should carry epi-pens. Ranitidine and benadryl are available over the counter in the US and can be given by mouth if the patient is able to manage his/her secretions (swallow saliva). Give the meds immediately, BEFORE swelling of the throat gets too severe.

    The half-life of epinephrine is short, so it is prudent to seek medical care after administration, but in a remote scenario this may not be possible. Oral corticosteroids can be given to reduce inflammation but don’t have much effect for several hours. I recently attended a wilderness medicine conference and learned that an epi-pen contains up to four doses of epinephrine. It can be broken open and additional doses given with a syringe and needle if the first dose begins to wear off and medical help is out of reach. I hope no one reading this information ever needs to use it! If we all follow Carolyn’s advice, we shouldn’t need to.

  • Paul Schroder
    Posted at 06 October 2016 Reply

    I see the makings of a cookbook for those with milk allergy in the making!
    I have a good friend who’s wife just discovered her allergy the hard way!
    Knowing how to cook well for them would be something worth investing in. You’ve been cooking “from scratch” most of the time for several years. I’m sure you have a great jump on the learning curve as to how to make great tasting meals that won’t endanger those you are cooking for.
    Love your website and cookbook!

    • Monika
      Posted at 06 December 2016 Reply

      I have both celiac (gluten) and a full dairy allergy. Been making most of mourning food for 16 years because of it. Luckily the substitutes are becoming better and more available. Finally have a powdered dairy free coffee creamer made from coconut (FYI every one of those “non dairy creamers” does contain casein, which is the protein in milk we are allergic to! Does that make sense to label it non dairy?!). Even found sweetened condensed coconut mil to replace that ubiquitous carnation evaporated milk. And shelf stable boxed soy or almost or rice milk are easier to find now.

      • Monika
        Posted at 06 December 2016 Reply

        That “mourning food” was an obvious typo!! Lol

  • Rebecca Kyes
    Posted at 06 December 2016 Reply

    Great article! I usually provide a recipe card or note with foods I take to a potluck, just in case someone has a food alergy or they just want the recipe. My mother was a leader for a handicapped Girl Scout troop, and many of our girls had serious food allegies, so the possibilities are familiar to me. I am allergic to MSG, and am a borderline diabetic–not wanting to make the leap into medication, so I try to choose wisely. The MSG won’t kill me, but it does cause me widespread fibromyalgia pain for several hours after ingestion. Because of my allergy, I try to list brand names of items in cassaroles, because some brands are safe, and some, not so much.

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