Monday, August 02, 2010

Safe Snacks for Kids with Food Allergies

A little while ago Swistle sent me an email saying that she would love to read a post about what to bring for a snack for kids with nut allergies. I have been thinking about this for weeks, figuring that it might be helpful for lots of people, and wondering how best to approach the subject.

After some hemming and hawing I decided to copy some of the information we give to Harper's teachers. Here is the information we share as a guideline for classroom snacks:

We will not allow Harper to eat food prepared in someone else’s home kitchen; the risk of cross-contamination is too great. (This extends to most of our relatives as well!)

We do not allow Harper to eat bakery products (cake, cookies, breads, etc.) prepared in store bakery sections or specialty bakeries (Cheryl & Co. in Town and Country, for example).

We do not allow Harper to eat food that is labeled in any of the following ways: may contain peanuts, processed on equipment that processes peanuts, processed in a facility that processes peanuts. (Sometimes this warning is directly below the ingredients statement and sometimes it is in another area of the packaging. All packages should be read thoroughly.)

Ice cream of any sort is usually not manufactured under conditions we consider “safe,” even though the labels rarely have cross-contamination warnings.

Any fresh fruits/vegetables need to be washed very carefully, many produce sections contain open bins of nuts and the “dust” from these nuts can contaminate the produce.

Extra care should be taken to examine labels of foods like crackers, cereal, cookies, cakes/cake mixes, muffins, bread, etc. Anything prepared in any type of bakery setting is at high risk for cross-contamination. I usually avoid purchasing products if I know the same company makes the same type of product in a peanut or peanut butter variety (i.e. Oreo makes a sandwich cookie w/ peanut butter filling).

Companies are required to list peanut when it is one of the ingredients in a food. They cannot hide peanut or peanut derived ingredients under the label “natural flavors”. This is a result of legislation that went into effect January of 2006.

Companies are not required to label for cross-contamination. Some companies choose to do so. There is always a risk of cross-contamination in a product that hasn’t been labeled as such. That’s why it is so important to be prepared to recognize the signs of a reaction and take immediate action. Some companies have better labeling practices than others. General Mills and Keebler are two companies with excellent labeling practices. When there is a choice between a Nabisco product and a comparable Keebler product, we prefer to use the Keebler product.

We never feed Harper a food item that is not labeled or has already been opened (I’m thinking of something like getting her jelly from a jelly jar in someone else’s house bc they may not have cleaned a knife between the peanut butter jar and the jelly – just wiping it off won’t get rid of the peanut protein.).

I triple check every label: I check in the store before I purchase a food item, I check at home when I unpack the item, and I check before I serve an item to Harper. More than once I’ve “caught” an unsafe item on the second or third look.

Sometimes a food which has previously been safe undergoes a manufacturing change and is no longer safe for Harper. This happened with Nestle chocolate chips, there used to be safe varieties and now every bag has a peanut warning on it. That’s why it is so important to check every time. It is also why I don’t recommend handing out a list of “safe snacks” to parents or teachers; it can lead to a false sense of security.

I am especially wary of anything baking related, especially chocolate items like chocolate chips, or items used to decorate candy and cookies. Even if the label looks okay I would likely call those companies to investigate their labeling practices. I am happy to do this for you w/ a few days notice!

A handful of companies come to mind when I think of who I trust when it comes to labeling: Hershey, Keebler, General Mills, and Quaker come right to mind.

Foods at high risk for cross contamination include chocolate, ice cream and other frozen desserts, sauces, dried fruit, granola, trail mix, and seeds. I am suspicious if I don’t see a warning on these types of foods and would likely call to check them out.

Animal feed/bird seed is a tricky area because the labeling laws are not clear when it comes to pet food – if there is a question this is another area I am happy to call and investigate.


Of course not all of these would apply to everyone looking for safe snacks, I'm just too lazy to edit!

Here are some other things to consider:

1. Even among those with peanut allergies, every family has a different "comfort zone" and will likely have different ideas about what they consider safe. Plus some people have a combination of allergies. Harper has shown evidence of allergy to other legumes so we have to watch out for products which have flour from these sources (chickpea flour, for example). That is pretty unique to our family, but it is important for us because many products listed as being free of the top 8 allergens use these flours in place of wheat flour.

2. As I said in the above points, manufacturing processes can change, so I hesitate to list "safe" foods. But here are some things we fall back on for treats: Dum Dum lollipops, Smarties candies, Skittles, Hershey products when the label is safe, Keebler graham snacks, Rold Gold pretzels, string cheese, that's what comes to mind off the top of my head. There are several boxed brownie, cake, and cookie mixes we consider safe, but I would be uncomfortable with Harper eating them if were prepared in a kitchen that wasn't nut free.

3. Sometimes non-food treats are a better option. Young children like stickers, mini notebooks, fancy pencils, etc.

4. The number one piece of advice I would offer is to talk to the parents of the allergic child, or ask the teacher how the allergy should be dealt with. For us, for now, I usually prefer to just provide an alternate or comparable snack for Harper when someone is bringing a treat to share. I always bring a safe treat for the group when there is any type of classroom party.

Man, this post ended up being really long and maybe not that helpful. I have a lot of trouble being brief when it come to this allergy business. But I am also happy to answer questions - so feel free to ask!

I'm all for anything that helps make school safe for beautiful children like these:


Swistle said...

I found this VERY helpful, and thank you very much for the post! I think overviews (i.e., no specific products listed) can be MORE helpful because they contain the WHY part. I also think overviews give people a better idea of how very unsafe food can be for a child with food allergies, and how much vigilance is required to avoid a dangerous situation.

Emily said...

I conciously think of Harper every single time I make a peanut butter sandwich for my kids, trying to be very thorough about cleaning them up when they are done, and I've actually thought that if Harper were to come over, our jelly jar would not be safe (is that weird?). Katy had a classmate this past year in preschool who had a peanut allergy, and knowing Harper (and you) really helped me when I was bringing snacks and treats. Good post!

Pam said...

In preparation for my son going to preschool and making new friends this was very helpful, so thanks.

It must be a constant worry for you and I'm sorry that you have to deal with it.