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nut allergy

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Airborne Food Allergens—What’s the Risk?

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When we hear stories of serious allergic reactions to food, they often involve someone unknowingly ingesting a food that contains their allergen. Gut-wrenching stories like the grilled cheese that killed a NYC preschooler, the Indian takeout food fatality in England, the woman left paralyzed after ingesting peanuts while traveling in Budapest, and the sesame-related death of a teenage girl after eating a Prèt A Manger baguette at an airport. 

For many of us, these stories hit a bit too close to home.

In these cases, the food was ingested—but what happens when the allergen goes airborne?  

In January, a story about an 11-year-old New Jersey boy rocked headlines after he died from what authorities believe was an allergic reaction from breathing in the steam from fish cooking in the kitchen. 

While rare, allergic reactions to aerosolized allergens do occur. 

According to Dr. John Lee, Clinical Director of the Boston Children’s Food Allergy Program, most airborne reactions probably occur due to particles of protein that rise into the air when food is actively cooked, and then they’re inhaled. “I’ve had patients describe their throat itching while around peanuts, or reported mild reactions on airplanes, but most airborne reactions typically result from particles of protein rising off heated foods.” For example, he offers someone with a shellfish allergy walking into a seafood restaurant, or a wheat-allergic patient standing near boiling pasta.

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, exposure to airborne food allergens does not typically result in anaphylaxis; however, these airborne particulates can cause symptoms such as itchy eyes, a runny nose, a cough, congestion, and difficulty breathing.

Airborne food particulates can also trigger two forms of occupational asthma: 1) baker’s asthma, following exposure to powdered allergen substances such as dried egg powder, soy flour, or wheat flour during baking; and 2) crab asthma, which is caused by dust and fume exposure from steaming, cooking, or scrubbing crab in processing plants. Both forms of asthma are considered allergic diseases because of the role allergenic proteins play in the respiratory response.

Notably, airborne allergic reactions aren’t limited to food. In at least one case, a chemical fragrance was the culprit. After a teenager named Brandon started developing headaches and hives at school, he connected his symptoms to Axe Body Spray. His allergy to the spray worsened, eventually leading to anaphylactic shock. Laws protecting manufacturers like Axe barred disclosure of the spray’s full ingredients list, preventing his family from discovering the allergenic trigger. Brandon had to leave school because of the exposure risks. 

Suffice it to say, airborne allergenic reactions extend beyond food. 

Most reported airborne reactions, however, continue to stem from common allergenic foods. Since peanut is the number one trigger of food-related anaphylaxis, the extent to which peanut particulates pose a risk is a common question in the food allergy community. 

In a 2003 study of 30 children with severe peanut allergies, researchers examined the extent to which inhalation and skin exposure elicited a reaction. For the skin test, one third of children experienced reddening or skin flares after peanut butter was pressed to their skin for one minute. Conversely, no child experienced respiratory symptoms after sitting in close proximity to three ounces of peanut butter for ten minutes.

The topic of aerosolized allergenic reactions has stirred enough controversy among food-allergic travelers that Southwest Airlines stopped serving peanuts on all flights starting in August 2018, and JetBlue does not serve peanuts on its aircrafts.

Food for thought? We think so. Have you experienced an airborne allergen causing an allergic reaction? Please share your experience if so! 

- Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team 

This piece was written by the Allergy Amulet team and reviewed by Allergy Amulet advisors Dr. John Lee and Dr. Jordan Scott. 

Dr. John Lee is the Clinical Director of the Food Allergy Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. Lee is widely recognized for his work in food allergy, and his commitment to patient health. 

Dr. Scott is an allergist/immunologist and operates several private allergy clinics throughout the Boston area. He is on the board of overseers at Boston Children’s Hospital, and the past President of the Massachusetts Allergy and Asthma Society. 

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The Nutty Nature of Nuts

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For years, patients diagnosed with a tree nut or peanut allergy have been told to avoid all nuts. But what if I told you that being allergic to one nut doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allergic to another? What if I also told you that avoiding nuts altogether could result in a higher risk of BECOMING allergic to nuts?

Nuts, right?

To make things even more confusing, it’s possible to be allergic to some tree nuts and not others (e.g., a patient could be allergic to all tree nuts except hazelnut and almond). Walnuts and pecans are almost 100% cross-reactive, so if you’re allergic to one, you’re almost certainly allergic to the other. The same is true of cashews and pistachios. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. 

Often, if a patient has an allergic reaction to a peanut or a tree nut, their allergist will advise the patient to avoid all nuts. Why? The rationale is three-fold: 1) some tree nuts are cross-reactive with others; 2) nuts are often packaged and handled in a shared facility, making cross-contact more likely; and 3) it is often easier for a doctor to advise patients to avoid all nuts (including peanuts, which are technically a legume). 

Doctors have also generally recommended strict avoidance of all nuts after a peanut or tree nut allergy diagnosis because of the challenges in distinguishing between nuts. Otherwise, the patient would be expected to know the difference between all of the different types of nuts: almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts—both shelled and unshelled. Studies have also shown that allergy patients are only slightly worse at identifying tree nuts than their allergists. 

Patients would also have to trust that kitchen and waitstaff at restaurants could distinguish between the nuts (spoiler alert: many can’t). Additionally, it’s hard to find bags of tree nuts that don’t list warnings of possible cross-contact with other tree nuts or peanuts due to manufacturing practices. In order to determine which nuts a patient is allergic to and which ones are safe, one or more oral food challenges may be necessary. 

Because of this, recommending that a patient avoid all nuts has historically been deemed the more practical—and safer—approach to food allergy management. 

Then came the LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut) study.

The LEAP study suggested that kids who were at risk for developing a peanut allergy were significantly less likely to become allergic if they ate peanuts early and often. The study also showed that if a patient was unnecessarily avoiding peanuts they were more likely to become allergic to peanuts over time. This suggested that unnecessarily eliminating certain allergenic foods could increase a child’s risk of becoming allergic.

This study led to a seismic shift in the food allergy community’s understanding of food allergies and allergy management practices. Suddenly, blanket avoidance of all tree nuts and peanuts came with the potential risk of increasing an at-risk child’s chances of developing a food allergy. For this reason, it is important that allergists talk with their patients and/or the patient’s families after a peanut or tree nut diagnosis about the different approaches to managing food allergies and decide together what is in their best interest. 

The first option is the oldest approach: strict avoidance of all peanuts and tree nuts. Many patients and families feel safe with this approach. Total avoidance may lessen the fear of a reaction due to cross-contact. Accordingly, for many patients and/or families, avoidance is the right choice. Another option is to have the patient continue to avoid the foods they are allergic to (in this example certain tree nuts) and teach families how to safely eat the foods they are not allergic to. This process may involve a food challenge. Deciding to eat certain nuts when allergic to others does involve learning how to read labels to check for potential cross-contact, learning what the different nuts look like shelled and unshelled, and understanding that eating those nuts is something that should be done at home and not in restaurants. 

We still have a lot to learn about food allergies, but hopefully in time we’ll get better at managing, diagnosing, and treating them. In the meantime, for newly diagnosed food allergy patients, candid conversations are a good start. 

 

Brian Schroer, MD is on staff at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital where he sees patients of all ages with allergic and food-related diseases. 

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FOMO: Fear of Missing Out… On Nutrients

Part II: Wheat, Soy, Peanuts, and Tree Nuts

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Welcome to Part II of our FOMO series! Here we’re discussing how to replace nutrients lost from eliminating wheat, soy, peanuts, or tree nuts from your diet. You can find Part I here covering dairy, eggs, fish, and shellfish.

If you’re used to eating toast, cereal, pancakes, or other baked goods for breakfast, avoiding foods that contain wheat will likely be a hard adjustment. Or maybe you fed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to your first child with no issue and your second child cannot eat peanut butter. It is an adjustment, to say the least! 

As a pediatric nutritionist, my work focuses on making sure kids with special dietary needs are getting the nutrients their growing bodies need. As you can imagine, many of my patients have multiple food allergies and have a fairly limited diet. The silver lining for these patients is that these children tend to have healthier diets because they’re avoiding lots of processed foods! 

I like to start by looking at each food that’s avoided and its corresponding nutrients side by side. As we discussed in Part I, this approach can make it less intimidating to identify other food sources for those lost nutrients.  

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Let’s take a closer look at a few of the nutrients needed when avoiding wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts.

Wheat products in America are fortified with B vitamins, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. 

Thiamin is important for maintaining a healthy metabolism and key function of cells. The major thiamin food sources are whole grains, meat, and fish. In the US, breads, cereals, and infant formulas are enriched with thiamin as well as other B vitamins. If you’re avoiding wheat and most breads and cereals, you may want to ensure your wheat-free products are enriched with these key nutrients as well!

Niacin is another B vitamin—B3 to be specific. Niacin helps our bodies use fat, protein, and carbohydrates to create energy. This vitamin is also enriched in processed wheat products and can be found naturally in most meats as well as mushrooms, avocados, and sunflower seeds, to name a few. 

If you’re a meat eater and wheat-avoider, I’m not typically concerned that you’re missing out on B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin) or iron. However, you may want to think about how much fiber is in your diet. Many people substitute rice, potatoes, and corn-based products for wheat. However, these are mostly low in fiber.

Fiber is a carbohydrate that your body does not digest. There are two types of fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and helps to regulate blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and works to move food through the digestive tract. Many people experience symptoms like constipation after making a change in their diet. In these cases, I tell my patients to increase their fiber intake and add fruits, vegetables, legumes, brown rice, and other whole grains like oatmeal and quinoa. 

If you are not a meat eater, and you’ve eliminated wheat or soy, this next one is for you.

Iron is found in red meat, fish, and poultry, but there are many plant-based sources of iron outside of wheat and soy, including spinach, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds (e.g., pumpkin, chia, sunflower, and hemp), dried fruits, quinoa, and some fortified breakfast cereals. Iron is better absorbed with vitamin C, so I recommend adding an orange alongside your trail mix for your next snack. Calcium inhibits iron absorption, so whether you get your calcium from dairy or a dairy substitute, try to avoid eating them together. 

Avoiding soy is not easy because it is in so many foods. Both peanuts and soy belong to the legume family and contain many of the same nutrients such as B vitamins, protein, magnesium, and phosphorus. 

Magnesium helps normalize blood pressure and keeps our bones strong. Phosphorus also helps to keep our bones strong and helps our bodies make energy and move our muscles. Both of these minerals are found in abundance in beans, seeds, and tree nuts. Phosphorus is also found in dairy, eggs, in meat products, whole grains, potatoes, and dried fruit.

The goal for everyone should be to expand their diet and add more variety! A more diverse diet will lead to greater nutrient intake, and hopefully more delicious meals. If you feel like you’re in a food rut, take a chance and add something new to your routine. Your body (and likely your taste buds) will thank you!   

 

Tara McCarthy is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who has a passion for pediatrics. She has worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for over 15 years as well as a private practice and specializes in nutrition for children with special dietary needs such as food allergies, celiac disease, FPIES, EoE, allergic colitis, and sucrose isomaltose deficiency. 

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FOMO: Fear of Missing Out… On Nutrients

Part I: Milk, Eggs, Fish, and Shellfish

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FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is a source of anxiety for many. For some, it means missing out on social engagements with friends. For others (likely many of our Allergy Amulet followers), it means missing out on certain foods. If you’re in the latter category, this post is for you.

There are many reasons people avoid certain foods: elimination diets, food allergies, or food intolerances, to name a few. In these cases, you’re not only removing the food from your diet, you’re also removing important nutrients (especially if we are talking about growing children!). As a pediatric dietitian, my job is to identify the foods that need to be eliminated, and then figure out how to ensure those lost nutrients remain in my client's diet.

This two-part series will focus on the nutrient implications of eliminating one or more of the top eight most common food allergens from your diet. Whether because of a food allergy or intolerance, or for diet or religious reasons, we’ve got you covered. This first part will focus on milk, eggs, fish, and shellfish. Next month, we’ll cover wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts. Let’s get started.

Personally, I find it helpful to first look at each food and its corresponding nutrients side by side. This approach can make it less intimidating to then find other food sources for those lost nutrients.

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As you can see, some of the foods listed above have overlapping nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. For example, if you are eliminating eggs from your diet, you can find substitutes for protein and vitamin B12 in fish and shellfish.

Where can you find these nutrients and how do they affect your health? Let’s take a closer look.

Protein: Is my child getting enough protein? This question comes up frequently in my practice. First, it’s important to keep in mind that the majority of Americans eat plenty of protein! To see how much daily protein you should be consuming, these Dietary Reference Intake standards provide helpful guidelines. On average, a child should consume approximately .8 - 1.2 gram/kg of protein per day, depending on their age. For example, a 4-year-old child who weighs 35 pounds would need about 16 grams of protein per day. For perspective, a glass of soy milk at breakfast and a turkey sandwich at lunch would be about 24 grams.  

Of course, protein doesn’t just come from animals. There are many plant-based sources that can help you meet your daily protein needs. Most non-dairy milks and yogurts are rich in plant-based protein, for example, as well as beans, legumes, seeds, and nuts.

Has anyone noticed the ever-growing number of milk substitutes hitting grocery aisles? I certainly have! If you’re wondering which one might be best for you, the below table shows common milk substitutes and their approximate nutritional values.

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Calcium: Most parents worry about protein, but I find I’m more focused on calcium intake - especially for those that don’t eat dairy! Calcium is important because it helps maintain the strength of our bones and teeth. It also supports our body structure and helps our muscles, heart, and nervous system function properly. Calcium can be found in vegetables like bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage and collards, beans (black, garbanzo, pinto), and almonds. Several milk substitutes and some orange juices and cereals are also fortified with calcium. Calcium needs range from 700mg - 1300mg/day, depending on a person’s age.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D also plays a role in bone health and the absorption of calcium. Your vitamin D intake depends mostly on sunlight exposure. That said, if you’re not getting much sunlight (read: grey winter weather), it helps to supplement your diet with this important nutrient. You may also routinely have your blood checked to determine whether you’re deficient in this vitamin, as you may need more than the recommended daily dose. If you can’t eat dairy or eggs (a major source of vitamin D), you should look to foods enriched with vitamin D as substitutes.

B Vitamins (B12, B2/Riboflavin, and B5/Pantothenic acid): B vitamins are important multitaskers. They are involved in everything from cognitive function and mood, to energy production and heart health.

B12: The best sources of vitamin B12 are eggs, milk, meat, fish, and poultry. I most often worry about B12 intake in my patients that are vegetarian or vegan. If you fall in either of those camps, plant-based milk substitutes and fortified beverages are great ways to help you meet your daily B12 needs while avoiding animal products.

B2/Riboflavin: Foods high in riboflavin include eggs, dairy, lean meats, green vegetables, and fortified grains (think cereals and breads).

B5/Pantothenic acid: Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid in scientific terms) plays an important role in turning carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into energy. It removes strain, or stress on the body. Good sources of B5 include mushrooms, cheese, fish, avocados, eggs, lean meats, sunflower seeds, and sweet potatoes.

Expert tip: focus on the foods that you CAN eat. If certain foods are off limits, create a list of the foods you can safely eat, and separate them into different categories (see below).

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Ultimately, the more variety in your diet, the more likely you are to meet your nutritional needs. Plus, it makes eating that much more interesting! Nobody should have FOMO when it comes to food—even if cutting out certain foods is a necessary part of your diet. The solution, in my opinion, is expanding your palate.

 

Tara McCarthy is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who has a passion for pediatrics. She has worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for over 15 years as well as a private practice, and specializes in nutrition for children with special dietary needs such as food allergies, celiac disease, FPIES, EoE, allergic colitis, and sucrose isomaltose deficiency. 

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