Standing in line at Trader Joe’s last week, I noticed a sign alerting shoppers of a recent recall of their Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream due to “the potential presence of small metal pieces in the product.” If you’re thinking, “That’s nuts!” You’re right—although in my case, either would probably be just as harmful (I’m fatally allergic to nuts).
The idea that some small dangerous object could be hiding in your food is not a far-flung concept for the food-allergic. If you’ve never lived with a food allergy, or cared for someone with a food allergy, it’s hard to appreciate the dangers that lurk behind seemingly innocent foods. And they often hide in the most unsuspecting places. Two such places are ice cream parlors and smoothie bars—or what UCLA pediatric allergist Dr. Maria Garcia-Lloret refers to as “allergy minefields.”
If you’ve ever been to an ice cream parlor with a food allergy, you know that the only thing separating a scoop of almond praline swirl and plain vanilla is typically a bucket of water—and for someone with a severe food allergy, that’s not going to cut it. Trace amounts of a food allergen, as low as parts-per-million levels, can be fatal for those with a severe food allergy.
These days, many popular smoothie bars offer “protein boost” health supplements, which often include tree nut and peanut powders (or other popular plant-based powders like chia seed, brown rice, hemp seed, green pea, sunflower seed, or pumpkin). These powders can have incredibly high allergen concentrations, which is to say, the slightest trace of one of these powders can trigger a severe reaction.
Dr. Garcia-Lloret, a professor of pediatric allergy at the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA and a pioneer in the food allergy community, has been treating food-allergic patients for nearly 20 years. Needless to say, she’s seen countless allergic reactions and anaphylactic episodes over the years. When we spoke, she offered a cautionary tale when it came to these cold summer treats. "Based on my experience, those with food allergies should be wary of ice cream parlors and smoothie bars, as they don't usually think of these types of establishments as hazardous, and they lower their guard." She also mentioned that teenagers are particularly vulnerable in these settings, noting how carefree summer outings with friends too often lead to the emergency room.
That said, if you have a food allergy but still need your cold smoothie or ice cream fix (like me!), the most important thing you can do is know all of the ingredients present at the facility, and make sure you’re comfortable with the measures the facility takes to prevent cross-contact. Additionally, here are a few other tips:
1. Ask the smoothie bar to use a freshly washed blender. Double-check their sanitizing process to ensure the blender has been thoroughly cleaned and there is no lingering allergen residue.
2. Make sure the ice cream scoop has been thoroughly washed since its last use.
3. If the person behind the counter wears gloves, ask them if they’d kindly change their gloves (or wash their hands if they’re not wearing gloves, as appropriate). Many of these establishments offer other foods as well, so this is a good way to ensure you’re avoiding cross-contact.
On the upside, many ice cream parlors and smoothie bars are becoming increasingly allergy-conscious, and are implementing more stringent protocols to accommodate those with severe food allergies. Let’s be honest, what kid (or adult) doesn’t want to participate in this classic summer pastime? If you’re now wondering, Where do I find hidden these allergy-friendly gems?! Spokin recently compiled this short list of some the nation’s most allergy-friendly ice cream parlors! Or, if you’d prefer to purchase a pint instead, check out this list of top allergy-friendly ice creams!
Wishing you all a SWEET summer!
- Abi and the Allergy Amulet Team